Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Pa. gifts that keep on giving

Jim Cawley, Pennsylvania´s lieutenant governor.
Jim Cawley, Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor.
Jim Cawley, Pennsylvania´s lieutenant governor. Gallery: Pa. gifts that keep on giving

LET ME TELL you how they get away with it.

Each May, state officials remind us they can take any gift they want, with no limit on value, as long as they self-report the source and worth of the gift.

No limit. Self-reporting. Who knows what the real take is?

That's repulsive. And soooo Pennsylvania.

Then we get "reformers" proposing to ban gifts. Then bills to do so. Then nothing.

Other states ban gifts. Here, we allow those we elect to legally collect booty because of positions we give them.

All they have to do is tell us what they got by each May 1.

But why should Rep. Dwight Evans get two tickets valued at $10,000 to the grand opening of the Barnes Foundation's new digs on the Ben Franklin Parkway?

"I supported that project and they [The Barnes] got about $40 million from the state," Evans says.

Well, if so, that's tax dollars, including from Evans' North Philly constituents. Were they invited?

Why should Rep. Florindo Fabrizio get a social membership to the Erie Yacht Club, which he values at $945 (I think - his filing form is hand-printed and hard to read) and which the club website says cost $1,000?

Fabrizio told the Associated Press that he gets a membership annually, but doesn't use it: "I never requested it; it just comes in the mail."

Does it come in the mail of his Erie constituents?

Point is, public service shouldn't include taking things that most of the public never get.

This is easy to fix, yet continuously ignored.

About the only silver lining is that it seems there's less swag these days.

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley reports no gifted travel or "hospitality." Last year, he listed a $740 Rhode Island "fishing trip" from the same biz-guy, John Moran, who flew Gov. Corbett and his first lady to a Rhode Island yachting trip - a gift valued at $1,422.

(The two trips offer a nice example of the difference between being governor and being lieutenant governor.)

You'll recall that the guv got heat for the 2011 Moran trip at a time when Moran's company was hauling fracking waste and reportedly was under scrutiny by the Department of Environmental Protection.

No heat now. Corbett reports only gifts of a fancy fountain pen, trips paid for by nonprofits or Republican groups, and two Turkish robes.

But rather than wrapping himself in plush, 22-ounces-per-square-yard, 100 percent cotton, Corbett ought to be pushing a gifts ban and other reforms he promised as a candidate.

Instead, we have a new, 36-member bipartisan Government Reform Caucus (which I'm skeptical about) holding its first formal meeting this week.

Its co-chairman, Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, says "a workable gift ban" is on the agenda, because "we need to make sure the public has confidence in us."

Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tina Davis, D-Bucks County, has a bill banning gifts worth more than $50 and travel or "hospitality" worth more than $500.

"It's the perception," Davis says. "People see us accepting gifts and think that influences our decisions, and that's not good."

I'll tell you what's not good.

It's not good that the "reform caucus" has no floor leader from either party. It's not good that caucus membership is only 14 percent of the Legislature. It's not good, although predictable, that the caucus has just two Philly members: Sen. Mike Stack and Rep. Pamela DeLissio. And it's not good that those with the clout to make things happen allow this issue to wallow.

Nine states have gift bans or very low thresholds: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

Peggy Kerns, director of the ethics center at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says other states are moving in that direction: "The trend is to tighten gift regulations . . . it's very important to calm a skeptical public."

Again, this is easy. They don't need gifts.

Lawmakers' base pay is $32,000 more than the state's median household income. Benefits are geometrically better than the vast majority of citizens'. A governor gets housing, transportation and a salary set at $187,256 (Corbett declines cost-of-living raises; he takes about $175,000).

Legislative leaders and the governor should at least pretend they care about the institutions and the offices in which they serve. Ban gifts. It's a start.

 


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

 

John Baer Daily News Political Columnist
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