Advocates optimistic gift ban will advance farther ‘than ever before’ as Pa. House returns

Lawmakers can accept gifts from anyone if they disclose items more than $250 on annual interest forms.

By: - September 9, 2022 12:04 pm

March on Harrisburg, a grassroots organization, hosts a rally on the Capitol steps to urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass the gift ban (Capital-Star photo).

For the last six years, Rabbi Michael Pollack and fellow MarchOnHarrisburg members have advocated for legislation prohibiting Pennsylvania lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists and special interest groups.

Advocates have walked hundreds of miles in protest, staged sit-ins outside committee rooms, interrupted political fundraisers, and faced arrest for their efforts to pressure lawmakers into passing a gift ban.

Lawmakers can accept gifts from anyone if they disclose items more than $250 on annual interest forms.

Months ago, Pollack, the group’s executive director, stood at a podium in the Capitol with a message for lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly: “This cannot continue.”

And as MarchOnHarrisburg begins a 33-mile, 3-day march from York to Harrisburg on Friday, their first since May 2019, Pollack is optimistic that a proposed gift ban will go farther in the Legislature than ever before when the House of Representatives returns to session on Monday, he told the Capital-Star.

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.

Legislation authored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, advanced out of the House State Government Committee in October 2021. MarchOnHarrisburg members were hopeful GOP leadership would follow through with a floor vote. However, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, who controls the voting calendar, has not called it up for consideration.

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.

“From the top, the [gift ban] has bipartisan opposition. It has rank and file support across both caucuses,” Pollack said of leadership who oppose the proposal.

Pollack said MarchOnHarrisburg has “given up hope” for Benninghoff to advance the proposed gift ban, so the group has spent months pressuring lawmakers to bypass Benninghoff and call a vote. The rarely used maneuver would require 102 votes and courage from House rank and file members to stand up to leadership, Pollack said.

“I always try to maintain hope — against better judgment. I think we’re going to get it farther than it’s ever been before,” Pollack said of the gift ban. “Whether or not it’s going to pass through the whole Legislature and get signed by the governor, that’s frankly a long shot.”

If lawmakers successfully follow through with MarchOnHarrisburg’s suggested plan to circumvent legislative leadership in the House, the gift ban would go to the Senate for consideration.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, has largely declined to comment on the proposal. Corman, who has reported a substantial number of gifts during his tenure, told the Capital-Star last year that he does not have a problem with lawmakers accepting gifts “as long as they’re transparent about it.”

Pollack noted: “There are ways around, just like doing this maneuver in the House. And if this does launch out of the House, we will be pushing as hard as possible to get through the Senate as quickly as possible.”

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