Pennsylvania state lawmakers — the elected officials who collect the second highest base salary among state legislators across the nation — accepted a total of $83,000 in free trips last year and collected a variety of gifts, alcohol and free meals.
Travel funded by third parties took legislators to Taiwan, Israel and destinations around the United States, including Seattle and Key West, Florida.
According to annual gift disclosures filed by state legislators, the trips were organized by groups that push ideological agendas. Although disclosures are required for gifts exceeding $250 and travel expenses exceeding $650 — excluding gifts provided by family and personal friends — the Pennsylvania Legislature does not limit how much lawmakers and other public officials can accept from lobbyists and others.
Most states limit the amount of gifts that lawmakers can take. Bills proposing these limits have generally been ignored by Pennsylvania lawmakers in the past, and the fate of current bills pending in the House and Senate, proposals that would ban many types of gifts and travel with some exceptions, remain uncertain.
Simply disclosing the amount of gifts or travel is insufficient to ensure citizens’ confidence in the integrity of government, a point that Gov. Tom Wolf drove home in an executive order he signed on Jan. 20, 2015, in which he outlined a new code of conduct for all employees who work within the state’s executive branch of government.
“Such confidence in the integrity of the government demands that significant contact between commonwealth executive employees and special interests, lobbyists and those who employ lobbyists seeking to influence the decisions and administrative actions of such employees, be regulated and publicly disclosed,” the governor’s executive order states.
The same language should apply to lawmakers in the state House and Senate.
It states that no executive branch appointee or official may “solicit or accept for the personal use of the employee or another, a gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, hospitality, loan or other thing of monetary value, including in-kind gifts from a person who:
n Is seeking to obtain business from or has financial relations with the commonwealth.
n Conducts operations or activities that are regulated by the commonwealth.
n Is engaged, either as principal or attorney, in proceedings before the commonwealth or in court proceedings in which the commonwealth is an adverse party.
n Has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the official duty of the employee.”
As in most other state laws, the exemptions apply to gifts from family and personal friends and standard financing for usual activities such as a home mortgages.
“The citizens of the commonwealth are entitled to confidence in the integrity of the government,” the governor wrote in his executive order, “including the process by which decisions and administrative actions are rendered.”
It is a standard of governmental integrity and transparency that all state lawmakers should adopt and promote.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher and top newsroom executives. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.