Pennsylvania’s lawmakers should take a strong stance on the gifts they choose to accept. The new limits passed through a committee this week are a begrudgingly weak reaction to a real problem, with enough carveouts to remove the teeth of the legislation.
The House State Government Committee approved limits on the cash value of gifts and hospitality that public officials, public employees or candidates can accept, including from lobbyists.
Exceptions would permit gifts from family members or “gifts exchanged between public officials or public employees on a voluntary basis, awards, prizes, training in the government’s interest, food and drinks at public meetings and educational missions.” The kicker? Lobbyists and others will be permitted to present birthday or wedding gifts.
According to The Associated Press, Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, said he wanted to make the legislation “more workable and argued that lobbyists have friends and attend personal events such as weddings where gifts should be allowed. He said his exception is allowing for regular human interaction when there is a significant life event.”
Here’s the thing about public servants who are elected to office: When you are elected by the people, “regular human interaction” changes.
We expect our lawmakers to act to a higher standard. It’s part of the job. Is that fair? Yes, because they are paid with taxpayer dollars and are charged with overseeing the thoughtful, efficient and effective allocation of billions of dollars.
Not every gift handed to a lawmaker is meant to sway a vote or gain access. But one could, and that is the issue.
The optics on these “transactions” are never good. These people are not lawmakers’ personal friends.
Even Committee Chairman Garth Everett told The Associated Press the legislation is not a gift ban. “There ought to be some middle ground in order for us to conduct business, as long as things are open and transparent and that taxpayers know what we’re accepting and from who,” Everett said.
Many states have strict laws limiting gifts lawmakers can accept. In Pennsylvania, the exceptions can be exploited: Lobbyists and other groups often provide lawmakers meals, travel and tickets to events. Earlier this year, an audit revealed that officials in 18 counties accepted gifts, including travel, lodging and meals, from vendors selling new mandated voting machines. One of the counties said officials went on wine tours with vendors.
That may all be legal under Pennsylvania’s current code. That doesn’t mean it’s right.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher and top newsroom executives. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.