Expecting ‘extraordinary action’ this session, gift ban advocates hope for legislative action

‘This is definitely the time for the gift ban to pass,’ Michael Pollack, executive director of the good government group MarchOnHarrisburg, told the Capital-Star

By: and - February 19, 2023 6:30 am

March on Harrisburg, a grassroots organization, hosts a rally on the Capitol steps to urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass the gift ban (Capital-Star photo).

After an unsuccessful attempt to circumvent legislative leadership and force a vote on a proposal banning lobbyists from giving gifts to Pennsylvania lawmakers, activists have hope the General Assembly will take action this session.

“This is definitely the time for the gift ban to pass,” Michael Pollack, executive director of the good government group MarchOnHarrisburg, told the Capital-Star.

For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have resisted claims that expensive gifts, a regular feature in Harrisburg, rarely influence policy decisions and are not a top concern for constituents. But activists argue that Pennsylvania’s gift laws, which are among the loosest in the nation, amount to legalized bribery.

Current law lets lawmakers accept gifts from anyone if they disclose items more than $250 on annual interest forms. Proposals to tighten the law have been introduced in the Legislature over the years. However, they’ve died with no debate. In 2021, lawmakers expressed bipartisan interest in a more comprehensive gift ban, but the proposal never saw a floor vote in the House, therefore never advancing to the Senate.

Before the 2022-23 legislative session ended, MarchOnHarrisburg — after launching a campaign targeting lawmakers to support the proposed ban — recruited a lawmaker to force a vote on a bill that would ban legislators from accepting gifts, transportation, and recreation exceeding $250 from a single person each year.

The move would have directly defied Republican leadership, specifically then-Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, who controlled the chamber’s voting calendar.

When the time to act came, no one made a move. MarchOnHarrisburg conceded, taking a break from the General Assembly to focus on organizing across the commonwealth.

At the time, Pollack said the group — known best for its creative demonstrations and vocal disruptions in Harrisburg — was going to “raise up an army” and come back stronger for the new legislative session.

With lawmakers returning to Harrisburg this month, following a dispute over operating rules in the lower chamber that caused delays across the entire General Assembly, activists are planning to keep the pressure on the Legislature.

“We’ll see how everything shakes out in the House and then assess them and move forward,” Pollack said. “But we’re definitely going to be pushing more intensely than we’ve done before because we can. We’re getting bigger and bolder and better.”

Reps. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, and Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, announced this week that they plan to introduce a bill prohibiting public officers, public employees, and candidates for public office from accepting cash in any amount and any gift that costs more than $50 from any one person in a calendar year.

Pollack said this proposal is the 34th gift ban introduced in the last 23 years.

Additionally, the same individuals could not accept hospitality, transportation, or lodging that costs more than $500 from any one person in a calendar year.

“As public officials, we have a duty to serve our constituents and maintain their trust,” the lawmakers wrote in a memo seeking legislative support for the proposal. “We must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Under their legislation, lawmakers would still report gifts, hospitality, transportation, and lodging on annual statements of financial interests, along with the circumstances of their receipt, and mandate the reporting of any honorarium that costs more than $50.

The lawmakers said their legislation would include exceptions for:

  • Gifts from family members and friends
  • Personal romantic relationships
  • Contributions under the Pennsylvania Election Code
  • Awards or prizes given at public events
  • Honorary degrees
  • Food and beverages at public events
  • Events where the public official or public employee is a speaker
  • Gifts between public officials or public employees and their staff
  • Educational missions
  • Honorariums valued at $100 or less
  • Light food or refreshments served in group settings
  • Reimbursement of expenses by a governmental body or organization of public officials or employees of political subdivisions where the public official or employee serves in an official capacity

“This session, we expect our public servants to act like public servants and build some trust with the public,” Pollack said. “We think that enough people in the Legislature are really starting to see the urgency of repairing the relationship between we the people and our government, and we’re expecting extraordinary action this session to repair that damaged relationship.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who took office last month, relaxed his predecessor’s strict executive branch gift ban to let employees accept meals, drinks, or small gifts, such as awards or promotional items, when “representing the commonwealth in an official capacity.”

Pollack called Shapiro’s relaxed gift ban “far more common sense” than the zero-tolerance approach used by former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration. And he urged the General Assembly to use a similar model for a legislative gift ban.

“We’re hopeful that a common sense approach will win the day, and we can pass the gift ban through the Legislature. And then, we’re hopeful that the governor will support that,” Pollack said, adding that getting a gift ban passed would be a “noteworthy accomplishment” for the Shapiro administration.

The House returns to Harrisburg on Feb. 21. The lower chamber must approve operating rules before taking up additional legislation.

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Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.

Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.