Their View: End the charade, ban gifts to Harrisburg lawmakers

The following editorial appeared in The (Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader.

Stop the flow of “gifts” to Pennsylvania’s lawmakers — an ongoing custom that’s so out of touch with modern perceptions of good government it boggles the mind why Harrisburg’s elected ones still haven’t outlawed it.

Ban the acceptance of cash and checks.

End the gratis hotel stays and yacht trips.

Prohibit the passing of pricey products and prime tickets, the picking up of the tab for extravagant meals and swanky services, and the exchange of anything else of value from people — lobbyists and the like — whose motives should rightly be questioned.

Providing gifts to power brokers is seldom pure of heart. Unlike the presents routinely showered on newlyweds, expectant moms and tots celebrating birthdays, the things passed to people in government posts always come with strings attached. Let’s call it what it is: Legalized influence peddling.

While employed as public servants, Pennsylvania’s state senators, representatives and legislative workers shouldn’t be receiving and unwrapping goodies from anyone aside from their mothers, fathers and other close family members. Astoundingly, state law places no limits on the size of a gift that a lawmaker can accept; he or she need only report it if it exceeds a certain dollar amount. And, of course, an elected official can’t pocket gifts and promise action in return. That would be bribery (illegal).

Money — whether in the form of legitimate campaign contributions or improper money passing — already exerts too much influence on our state government. Pennsylvania’s outdated laws on gifts only further pollute the system, at least in the eyes of many observers. Regrettably, the majority of our state lawmakers have so far seen no evil and been content with the current slimy setup.

Gov. Tom Wolf championed a higher ethical code of conduct on his first day in office this month, signing a gift ban for all political appointees and state workers under his jurisdiction. But his executive order does not apply to the government’s legislative and judicial branches.

To her credit, state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, this month again introduced a bill that would ban legislators, public officials and public employees from taking cash gifts. Her bill won unanimous support from the Senate during the last session, then stalled. The House took no action on it. The bill would apply to U.S. and foreign currency as well as things such as prepaid debit cards, money orders and checks. Bitcoins aren’t mentioned by name, so don’t be surprised if one day some shady character tests the limits of this or another perceived loophole.

Baker’s bill deserves speedy action this year in both chambers of the General Assembly, but the prohibition against cash gifts doesn’t go far enough to suit our sensibilities. Ban all gifts aside from those given by family members whose intent is purely personal, not political.