'Gifts' just another name for bribes
If there is anything as bizarre as the state law by which Pennsylvania lawmakers allow themselves to be legally greased by all manner of special pleaders, it is the legislators' reluctance to repeal it.
Rather than simply blowing up the corruption inherent in their receipt of "gifts," legislators tip-toe around the practice as if ending it would harm the public interest.
The ongoing controversy regarding an unprosecuted sting operation in Philadelphia, in which four state representatives allegedly took "gifts" from an informant, illustrates the absurdity of current state policy.
Lawmakers legally may receive "gifts" in any amount but must disclose all "gifts" valued at more than $250. They also may accept any amount of free travel, lodging and hospitality but must report anything valued at more than $650.
In the Philadelphia, the crime isn't that the state lawmakers allegedly allowed themselves to be greased, but that they didn't report "gifts" in excess of the threshold. Even more preposterous is that the representatives can cure that by filing amended financial disclosure forms.
And they didn't pioneer the art of forgetting to report "gifts." Some of their colleagues now tut-tutting in Harrisburg didn't report their receipt of Super Bowl tickets and travel to the game a few years ago until it was reported in several newspapers.
The need to simply ban gifts couldn't be more obvious but Pennsylvania's legislators apparently have a higher threshold for embarrassment than for reportable "gifts." The Senate recently passed a ban only on cash "gifts," and the House is engaged in a series of hearings and apparently intent to simply lower the "gift" reporting threshold rather than banning the practice.
At one of those hearings recently, legislators learned from John Schaaf, counsel for the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, that strict limits adopted by that Legislature after a series of scandals 21 years ago produced a change in that legislature's culture. Recently, that legislature strengthened the rules further, prohibiting the receipt of so much as a cup of coffee.
The refusal of Pennsylvania's lawmakers to even consider such an obvious solution reveals their mind-set, which must change. Pennsylvanians adequately pay the nation's largest full-time legislature to conduct public business in the public interest. No "gifts" from anyone are necessary in that mission.