Lobbyist gift ban does not reach House floor; advocates say ‘there’s still time’

click to enlarge Lobbyist gift ban does not reach House floor; advocates say ‘there’s still time’ (2)
Penn Cap-Star Photo: Marley Parish

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives had adjourned for the day when MarchOnHarrisburg Executive Director Rabbi Michael Pollack, who was holding a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda, learned that lawmakers had not forced a vote on a proposed gift ban.

After six years of advocacy efforts, the group was cautiously optimistic that legislation prohibiting lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists and special interest groups would go “farther than ever before” in the Republican-controlled Legislature on Monday.

But the legislation, authored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, saw no action in the chamber as the House returned from its summer break.

For months, MarchOnHarrisburg advocates have pressured lawmakers to bypass House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, who controls the voting calendar, to advance the proposed gift ban. The maneuver would require 102 votes and courage from House rank-and-file members to stand up to leadership, Pollack said.

After finding out lawmakers were headed home for the day, Pollack congratulated Benninghoff and state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, the minority whip.

“You win,” Pollack said. “You’ve got us this round.”

Lawmakers can accept gifts from anyone if they disclose items more than $250 on annual interest forms. Proposals to tighten the law have been introduced in the Legislature over the years. However, they’ve died with no debate — until last fall, when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed interest in a more comprehensive gift ban.

When Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, took office in 2015, he immediately signed an executive order prohibiting executive branch employees from accepting gifts. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and state Liquor Control Board enacted similar policies. Wolf’s ban expires when the term-limited governor leaves office in January 2023.

MarchOnHarrisburg members argue that the loose restrictions for lawmakers leave room for lobbyists, special interest groups, and others looking to influence policy decisions to bribe elected officials.

Kaufer’s proposal would cap the amount lawmakers can receive from those seeking to influence government decisions at $250 and bar elected officials from accepting lodging or transportation for events connected with public office.

Though the bill isn’t perfect, Pollack said it’s a starting point to improve the current system, which is “nothing,” he said.

“We’re tired of talking to these people,” Pollack said. “They give us hollow promises. They say they’re going to do the right thing, and then they don’t.”

He added that MarchOnHarrisburg wasn’t planning to come back to the state Capitol this year, saying that the group would focus on organizing across the commonwealth — “to raise up an army” and “come back here 10 times stronger.”

The current legislative session ends Nov. 30.

However, after stepping away to talk to a lawmaker on the phone, Pollack said the fight to pass a gift ban was not over this week. He declined to identify lawmakers who support bypassing legislative leadership but said MarchOnHarrisburg will be back before the House adjourns for the week. Pollack also encouraged those who support the proposed ban to contact Benninghoff, Harris, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, to urge them to support the legislation.

“This is not over at all. Anybody can back out. And of course, nothing is settled. But there’s still room for people to do the right thing,” Pollack said. “There’s still time.”

Marley Parish is a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.