EDITORIAL: It's time to ban gifts for lawmakers

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, sponsors an amendment with exceptions to a gift ban bill, before the proposal's unanimous approval by the House State Government Committee during a hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. The bill would ban cash gifts outright and put limits on other gifts and hospitality. It was sent to the House floor unanimously. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

It feels like common sense: Lawmakers shouldn't accept gifts from lobbyists.

Not food. Not drinks. Not books. Not tickets to sporting events.

And yet the state Legislature is debating long and hard about exactly what legislators can take from lobbyists.

What about educational trips?

What about working lunches?

What if it's their birthday?

Most other states have laws limiting the extent of gifts that lawmakers may accept, but in Pennsylvania, lobbyists and other groups routinely provide lawmakers free meals, travel and tickets to expensive sporting or entertainment events to lawmakers. In 2014, both the House and Senate banned most cash gifts to members.

The state House is working on that. On Tuesday, Nov. 19, the House State Government Committee unanimously approved House Bill 1945, which would place an annual limit on the cash value of gifts and hospitality that public officials, public employees or candidates can accept.

In general, lawmakers wouldn't be allowed to accept gifts of more than $50 from one person in a calendar year or more than $500 in hospitality, transportation or lodging. 

Republicans pushed through a party-line vote to add an exception to let lobbyists give birthday or wedding presents.

Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, 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.”

Some of the other exceptions in the bill: gifts from family members or “gifts exchanged between public officials or public employees on a voluntary basis.” Gifts exchanged between a lobbyist and a public official in a "personal romantic relationship." Informational materials. Food and drinks at public meetings and educational missions. Awards and prizes.

Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, acknowledged 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.

Conducting business is the key phrase here. We're talking about public officials doing public business with lobbyists who have their own personal agenda. 

It would be a step forward to at least know who is giving gifts to which legislators. It would be better to stop those gifts altogether.

Gov. Tom Wolf has banned gifts to employees of the executive branch, and he's repeatedly called on the Legislature to follow suit.

But Republican lawmakers are critical of that policy, noting on Tuesday that Wolf's staff have turned down bottles of water and paid their own way or declined food at public events.

The thing is, that actually seems like the right thing to do. 

We're not suggesting that lawmakers can be bought for the price of a meal at Capital Gastropub or even tickets to a Steelers game, but, let's face it, accepting a meal or tickets doesn't make it clear that the legislator is acting completely in the interest of the public.

Having a clear rule that says public officials can't accept anything from lobbyists, even a bottle of water, would make it easier to see that legislators are beholden solely to the public.