Pa. House Committee advances gift ban bill

The Pa. House State Government Committee considers gift ban legislation during a voting meeting on Tuesday, 11/19/19 (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

After getting buy-in from a top official, a House committee advanced a proposal to end cash gifts to lawmakers and limit the value of other presents or travel that lawmakers can accept from lobbyists and other private citizens.

The House State Government Committee unanimously passed the legislation sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, on Tuesday, capping a years-long push by such good government advocates as March on Harrisburg.

“Can you record a happy dance; is it possible to get that on audio?,” March on Harrisburg executive director Michael Pollack joked after the vote.

Pollack said a ban would help Harrisburg lawmakers earn back legitimacy and trust from Pennsylvanians who don’t trust that their state elected officials are working for their interests.

A June 2018 poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., found that 72 percent of respondents said that state government needed reform.

The college’s most recent poll found that 57 percent of Pennsylvanian’s think the state is on the right track, but found that “politicians” and “government” were the second biggest problem in the state — after taxes.

Turzai lends support to gift ban after activists shower lawmakers with dollar bills, get arrested

March on Harrisburg held noisy protests, sometimes resulting in arrests, in the decorum-bound Capitol, to call attention to their cause. In one instance, the group showered the House floor with $1 bills to protest the lack of a ban. 

That latest incident, in May, drew a reaction from House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. He put his name to a gift ban bill favored by March on Harrisburg.

When the bill passed, more than two dozen activists watching the vote in the committee room erupted in applause.

Currently there is no limit on what elected lawmakers can receive from lobbyists. Any gift valued in aggregate of $250 of more and the circumstances of the gift must be reported on a yearly disclosure form.

Also, any transportation, lodging and hospitality that is more than  $650 in value must be reported on these forms.

Cash gifts to lawmakers are also legal.

The bill passed Tuesday was not the original proposal offered by March on Harrisburg. Everett’s compromise version would ban any cash gifts, and gifts with a value of more than $50. 

It would also ban accepting travel arrangements worth more than $500 from a single person in a year. 

Both limits are in aggregate — that is, total gifts to any one person to one lawmaker cannot exceed the two numbers.

The reporting limits will also now match the new gift limits.

Everett said getting rid of cash gifts in particular was a top priority.

“That definitely casts us in a badlight when any of our members are found to be taking cash,” Everett said. “And this makes it clear you can’t do that.”

He added that ideally, the goal of the new law should be to limit gifts while also letting constituents know who gives what to their lawmakers.

But loopholes will remain. Lobbyists could still give gifts of any size to lawmakers for “the celebration of a major life event” under language inserted in committee.

The amendment, by Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, would let lawmakers receive gifts at a wedding or birth or graduation of a child, among other events.

Under the bill, gifts exempt from the ban would not have to be reported.

Pollack expected a floor fight over ways to amend the bill, and expressed some concern over the changes from Gabler. But the “spirit is correct,” of the amendment.

“We want to make this as common sense of a gift ban as we possibly can,” Pollack said.

Changes left untouched in committee include a ban on lobbyists also running political campaigns — a tactic which has drawn criticism in Harrisburg. You can read a list of other states’ policies here.