Gift ban advocates look to circumvent GOP leadership, pressure lawmakers

‘The majority against corruption already exists. It’s whether or not the people who call themselves our leaders are willing to take a stand, lead, and join the majority,’ Rabbi Michael Pollack said

By: - May 27, 2022 11:33 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).

Rabbi Michael Pollack has been coming to the Pennsylvania Capitol for six years, and it never gets easier.

The executive director of MarchOnHarrisburg has walked thousands of miles in protest, staged demonstrations, and faced arrest for efforts to pressure lawmakers into passing a ban to prohibit legislators from accepting gifts from anyone looking to influence government policy.

He also throws up every time he heads back to Harrisburg.

“It’s not a fun experience, and it happens quite regularly,” Pollack said Wednesday during a press conference at the Capitol. “And it doesn’t happen on days that I don’t come here. It’s here — to this place.”

For the Philadelphia rabbi and activist, the state Capitol reminds him of Sodom and Gomorrah, biblical cities destroyed for their sinfulness, or as Pollack put it, “collapsed under the weight of the roof of corruption.”

And in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers can accept gifts — lodging, travel, entertainment, and meals — from anyone as long as they disclose those worth more than $250 on annual interest forms, the commonwealth is on the same path as the biblical cities, Pollack said.

“This is more corrupt than the cities that turned on themselves, that had no compassion for the innocent, had no compassion for the poor, and dispossessed and collapsed internally,” he said. “And we are here to say we are close to that moment. We are here to say that this is all falling apart, that this cannot continue. This is not sustainable.”

MarchOnHarrisburg has spent six years advocating for a gift ban.

Members have disrupted Senate sessions by shouting from the gallery. They have crashed fundraisers for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, who has accepted lavish gifts during his tenure. Organizers have targeted House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, with protests at speaking events, his district office, and outside his Harrisburg residence.

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 over the last year.

A 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.

And the longer the gift ban stalls, “the more we will continue to escalate,” Pollack said.

That’s why MarchOnHarrisburg is now trying to bypass Benninghoff, who controls the House voting calendar and has yet to call a proposed legislative gift ban up for a vote since it advanced out of committee last fall, by pressuring representatives to form a majority of 102 legislators. That is the required number of votes for lawmakers to override the House majority leader and vote on a piece of legislation.

MarchOnHarrisburg also has direct actions planned for June and a 36-mile march from York to Harrisburg in September.

“The majority against corruption already exists. It’s whether or not the people who call themselves our leaders are willing to take a stand, lead, and join the majority,” Pollack said. “It’s time to find out.”

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