Protesters disrupt Pa. House leader’s speech, demand lawmakers pass a gift ban

Three more takeaways (and a bonus) from House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff’s speech to the Pa. Press Club

By: - February 28, 2022 2:56 pm

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, addresses the monthly luncheon of the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022 (Capital-Star photo).

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, answered a battery of questions from a roomful of journalists, lobbyists, and business leaders on Monday afternoon.

But his most aggressive line of questioning may have come from protesters from the grassroots group March on Harrisburg, who crashed the midday event at the Harrisburg Hilton, repeating their ongoing demand that the Republican-controlled General Assembly pass a gift ban for state lawmakers.

Benninghoff, a 13-term lawmaker whose office controls the House’s voting calendar, appeared to dismiss the chances of such a bill receiving a vote in the lower chamber, saying he’d need to see detailed specifics, and adding that other, more pressing business, such as the 2022 state budget and still unfinished legislative maps took precedence.

The advocacy group, for its part, has vowed to follow Benninghoff across the commonwealth, and to keep up the drumbeat of pressure.

Under current state law, lawmakers can take unlimited gifts and hospitality — such as meals and free trips — from those who hope to influence or flatter them. March on Harrisburg has described the practice as legalized bribery – an allegation they repeated Monday.

Opponents of a ban have argued that imposing too strict of a ban could prevent a lawmaker from accepting small but meaningful offerings, such as a bottle of water on a hot day or a t-shirt from a youth sports team. They also point to language now in statute requiring lawmakers to file disclosures with the state Ethics Commission if their yearly total of gifts exceed $250 and hospitality exceed $650, the Capital-Star previously reported.

“I don’t take any gifts. It’s not a personal thing for me like any other legislation, we need to have legislation that is functional and beneficial,” Benninghoff told reporters after his speech. “And when the governor first came in, you know, kudos to him telling his staff, they can’t do anything … This is not something the general public is screaming at us about, I think. These protesters are really trying to gin up something that is not true.”

Benninghoff’s speech was carried by the Pennsylvania Cable Network. But if you weren’t there, here are three more takeaways from his remarks:

Recreational Adult-Use Cannabis: While a Pennsylvania Senate panel held its second public hearing on legislation that would legalize adult-use cannabis in the commonwealth, Benninghoff effectively torpedoed its chances of ever seeing a vote in the House.

Asked by an audience member if the bill had legs, the compact GOP floor boss cracked that those legs were “shorter than mine.”

On Tuesday, the Senate Law & Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, was to hear testimony on legalization’s impact on DUI laws, taxes and revenue growth; testing procedures and other oversight issues, as well as its impact on the state’s six-year-old medical marijuana program, the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported.

During a meeting earlier this month, the committee heard from government officials, law enforcement, and industry stakeholders.

On passing an election code rewrite before the November general election: Asked during his formal remarks about the chances of the House passing a broad-based rewrite of the state’s election code, Benninghoff said that “in order for a good rewrite of the election code to be successful, it will take the willingness of the [Wolf administration] to sit down and have discussions.”

Speaking to journalists after his remarks, Benninghoff expanded on this comments, saying the House would “like to have one done by now.

“I think there’s a lot of things that needs to be cleaned up in there,” Benninghoff said. “I think people want continuity, and they want to believe that their votes are going to be counted accurately and consistently across the Commonwealth. And we have senators who represent multiple counties, they shouldn’t have to worry that one county is going to count vote votes one way, and one’s going to count them a different way. So yes, we would be open to that.”

Earlier this month, legislative Republicans celebrated a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruling striking down Pennsylvania’s mail-in balloting law. But the case is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has a progressive majority and could well reverse the lower court’s ruling.

The 2019 law passed the General Assembly with the near unanimous support of Republicans, including 11 of the 14 plaintiffs who are challenging it.

On whether the Supreme Court will side with Republicans on their challenge to Pennsylvania’s House & Senate maps: “I didn’t ask the Supreme Court to give me a win when I asked the Supreme Court to look at the Constitution and look at the challenges that we made,” Benninghoff told reporters after his speech. “All our arguments are based on constitutionality and following the rules of how maps are supposed to be drawn.”

Last week, the high court denied the House GOP’s preemptive request seeking to block the use of new legislative lines this year, and instead use the state’s current map in the upcoming midterm election. The broader question of the maps’ overall constitutionality has yet to be decided.

And, a bonus:

On whether the House will take up the impeachment of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, as is being sought by Benninghoff’s fellow Centre County Republican lawmaker, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman:

“We have been asked to look at that. I do support local control. Voters did re-elect that individual. The Attorney General can prosecute crimes, it’s already in law,” Benninghoff said. “There are ways to hold him accountable, just as people hold the General Assembly accountable.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.