Gift ban advocates call Benninghoff the latest holdup; House GOP says it’s a ‘work in progress’

‘There are seven gatekeepers in Harrisburg that need to be on board for everything to happen. And if any of those seven people say it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,’ Michael Pollack told the Capital-Star

By: - December 26, 2021 6:30 am

A protesters picks up fake money from the Capitol floor during a protest calling for a vote on a bill to ban gifts to lawmakers on September 29, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

Dressed in his signature white fur-trimmed red suit with a matching hat and broad buckle belt, Santa Claus took a trip to visit Pennsylvania lawmakers before they went home for the winter holiday. 

And for the first time, Rabbi Michael Pollack, dressed as a gift and carrying a sack of candy coal, went Christmas caroling.

But Santa and his helpers, organizers with March on Harrisburg, weren’t making demands for figgy pudding; they were asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a gift ban, telling lawmakers: “When a lobbyist gives you something, it’s not a gift. It’s a bribe.”

“Ho, ho, ho, it’s quid pro quo,” Pollack, who serves as executive director of the grassroots reform organization, chanted with a dozen other members in the Capitol on Dec. 14.

Under Pennsylvania’s existing Ethics Act, state lawmakers and government employees can accept unlimited gifts — lodging, travel, entertainment, and meals — from anyone as long as they disclose those worth more than $250 on annual financial interest forms.

When Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, took office in 2015, he immediately signed an executive order to prohibit executive branch employees from accepting gifts. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and state Liquor Control Board enacted similar policies. Wolf’s ban expires when the term-limited governor leaves office in January 2023.

March on Harrisburg is one of the most vocal groups advocating for the gift ban, arguing that the loose rules leave the door open for deep-pocketed lobbyists and special interests to bribe lawmakers and sway government decisions.

Previous efforts to tighten Pennsylvania’s gift laws have died in the General Assembly, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed a desire for a more comprehensive ban. 

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, have supported a gift ban. Earlier this fall, a House bill, authored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, proposing limits on what lawmakers and state employees can accept as gifts and amenities associated with public office, advanced out of the House State Government Committee in October.

The legislation, however, has yet to see a floor vote.

Jason Gottesman, a House GOP spokesperson, told the Capital-Star the gift ban is “a work in progress.”

In October, Wolf praised the House for considering a proposed ban. However, the governor noted that a loophole would let lawmakers and state employees accept gifts from businesses and individuals who are not registered lobbyists with business before the government. He urged lawmakers to pass strengthened legislation.

Gottesman looked to critiques from March on Harrisburg and Wolf of Kaufer’s proposal, which bars lawmakers and state employees from soliciting or accepting more than $250 in gifts for “nongovernmental use” from lobbying firms, lobbyists, or anyone who has hired a lobbyist. The bill also bans state officials from accepting lodging and transportation for events related to public office.

“We’re committed to doing stuff, moving bills that reflect our priority of having a government that Pennsylvanians can be proud of,” he said. “Certainly, we don’t want to vote on something as significant as this and have Wolf veto it. But we’re also not necessarily inclined to do everything that he says either, so it remains a work in progress.”

Pollack, however, said thinking Wolf would veto a gift ban for being too weak or that it’s a governor versus the Legislature issue is “absurd.” He added that while Kaufer’s bill isn’t perfect, it is an improvement to the current system, which is “nothing.”

“Gov. Wolf does have the full gift ban, $0, no exceptions. Since day one in the Legislature, March on Harrisburg has never been asking for that,” Pollack told the Capital-Star. “It’s not realistic for the way legislators live their lives. There need to be exceptions for gifts from relatives — hats, pens, mugs, bottles of water — common-sense exceptions, right?”

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, did not answer whether the governor would sign Kaufer’s bill if it made it to his desk as currently written. Instead, she said he plans to follow it as it works through the Legislature.

“There are seven gatekeepers in Harrisburg that need to be on board for everything to happen. And if any of those seven people say it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,” Pollack said, referencing committee chairs, majority leaders, the House speaker, the Senate president pro tempore, and the governor.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, is the only legislative leader who has refused to comment on the gift ban as a sitting lawmaker. Corman, however, did tell the Capital-Star that he would support a ban if he was serving as the state’s top executive.

But a House vote is the next step in the legislative process, and from Pollack’s perspective, Benninghoff — who controls the House voting calendar — is the current holdup.

“The person who needs to make the next move constitutionally is Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff,” Pollack said.

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