By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Banning cash gifts for public officials and employees has been the reform idea du jour in the state capitol for the past three weeks, but now an actual piece of legislation is moving through the state Senate to curb the problem.
The legislation was unveiled Monday, two weeks after state Sens. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, announced their plans to tackle the issue after ugly allegations of Philadelphia lawmakers accepting money surfaced in a Philadelphia Inquirer report last month.
Senate Bill 1327 cleared the State Government Committee on Monday and could go to a vote this week.
“This is a very important first step and a fundamental principle that I think should be in law,” said Baker, who represents a Northeastern Pennsylvania county that has been stained by wide-ranging public corruption — including the infamous kids-for-cash judicial scandal — in recent years.
CASHING OUT: The days of Pennsylvania lawmakers accepting cash gifts could soon end as legislation banning the practice moves through the state Senate.
In that case, two judges received kickbacks of cash stuffed in FedEx boxes. Both are now in prison.
Despite those types of cases, state lawmakers still are allowed to accept cash gifts as long as they adhere to the state’s reporting requirements.
Smucker said a cash gift ban could be the primer to more extensive reform in the wake of the Philadelphia situation.
“At one point the public was frustrated with the pace of reform. And now, I think they’re just appalled and demanding action,” Smucker said, explaining the strategy of moving on a cash gift ban for now.
The bill would prohibit public officials and employees from accepting United States or foreign currencies, money orders, checks, prepaid debit or credit cards and gift cards or certificates from lobbyists or people looking to influence public policy.
It also includes several exceptions.
Political contributions and commercial loans made in the ordinary course of business and transactions involving reasonable consideration of equal value or greater value — such as a lobbyist ordering lunch at a restaurant owned by a public official — would be OK.
Close relatives also could give cash gifts, as long as the motivation was for personal or family reasons. Prizes given as part of a competition or contest and cash gifts available to the public or offered to members of a group or class in which membership is not related to being a public official or public employee also are allowed under the bill.
Some exemptions were needed to make sure lawmakers didn’t find themselves in trouble for using coupons, such as the so-called Kohl’s Cash that customers can earn by shopping at the department store.
Baker also said she didn’t think wording that prohibits lawmakers from accepting a cash gift from “a person that is seeking official action from the state public official or public employee” would open the door for someone to give a cash gift as long as they’re not explicitly asking for anything in return.
Instead, Baker said the language “broadens” the scope of the bill to include people who might not be lobbyists.
Violators who accept a cash gift of more than $250 would face a felony charge that would carry up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Those who accept cash gifts of up to $250 would face a misdemeanor charge, up to two years in prison and up to a $1,000 fine.
While state Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, agreed with other lawmakers who called the bill a common-sense approach, he also said he thought it seemed “reactive.” He pointed out another bill that would require the reporting of all gifts, meals, travel and entertainment given to lawmakers and members of the executive office has been stuck in the same committee.
“Now the public pressure’s on, and we’re doing something. And it’s great we’re doing it,” he said, while adding that it should be a “good lesson” after lawmakers didn’t move on the issue before.
Baker said he hopes the bill will move “across the finish line” quickly. If it does, it’d at least be a start for those who’ve been clamoring for ethical reform.
Eric Epstein, founder of the government reform group Rock the Capital, said it’s time for a statutory ban on cash, entertainment and gifts for lawmakers.
“Nothing good happens when a vested interest gives a politician cash or a gratuity,” he said.
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.