Gift ban for public officials could be on reform agenda
A flap over Gov. Tom Corbett's acceptance of $11,000 in gifts from lobbyists and business executives during a recent two-year period is leading to new calls for a state law to ban gifts to public officials completely.
A gift ban is one of the issues that a newly formed legislative Government Reform caucus could decide to push for.
Under the state Ethics Law, public officials can take unlimited gifts of unlimited value as long as they are publicly disclosed if above a monetary threshold.
They are required to disclose any gifts with an aggregate value of $250 or more and transportation, lodging and hospitality with an aggregate value of $650 or more on their annual financial statement of interest filed with the state Ethics Commission.
Corbett disclosed those gifts, which include tickets to sport events, a flight on a private jet and concert tickets, in reports filed with the commission for 2010 and 2011.
The problem that government reform lobbies like Common Cause Pennsylvania have with gift-giving is what's legal in Pennsylvania.
The monetary reporting thresholds in the ethics law are too high and enforcement of the governor's code of conduct for executive branch employees is spotty, wrote Common Cause executive director Barry Kauffman in a memo.
Kauffman makes the argument that gift-giving to a public official is different from when friends exchange gifts.
"When you and I reciprocate to a gift from a friend, we're likely to provide something of relatively equal value, a bottle of wine, a DVD or a dinner invitation," he said. "But when a governor or other public official reciprocates, it can be a multimillion-dollar contract, a job for a lobbyist's friend or instructions to regulators to back off an enforcement action..."
Kauffman also focuses on the workings of lobbyists.
"Lobbyists basically try to become professional 'friends' and the gears of these friendships often are greased with gifts, food, hospitality and travel," he added. "Danger to our government occurs when these relationships break down public officials' due diligence or improperly bias their judgment."
Welfare drug testing
A bipartisan effort to have a drug screening program for all recipients of state cash assistance benefits is under way in the Senate.
A bill sponsored by Sen. John Wozniak, D-35, Johnstown, would direct the Department of Public Welfare to conduct random tests of at least 5 percent of individuals receiving cash assistance benefits over consecutive six-month periods.
Sen. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, endorsed the legislation, saying tax dollars shouldn't be used to pay for someone's drug habit.
A 2011 state law provides for random drug tests of welfare recipients who have a prior drug felony conviction. Schuylkill County was selected to participate in a pilot project to test the law.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications.)