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Hue And Cry, And Hope, For A Ban On Cash Gifts

That sound you hear is the stampede of lawmakers rushing to propose a ban on cash gifts. The calls for reform are following revelations that four Philadelphia House Democrats accepted money from an undercover lobbyist working with state prosecutors in a quashed sting.

Pennsylvania’s ethics act is one of the weakest in the country, letting public officials accept gifts as long as they report those valued at $250 or more. The reporting trigger is $650 dollars if the gift is transportation, lodging, or hospitality.

A number of lawmakers are proposing a ban on cash gifts — among them, Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster), Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery), and Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler). Rep. Tina Davis (D-Bucks) had a bit of a jump on her colleagues, having announced plans to introduce a gift ban in January.  

Common Cause PA has been calling for a gift ban since the 1970s. Barry Kauffman, director of the government reform group, said he thinks we’re witnessing a “teachable moment” when the ban just might pass.

“We know there was a hole, that’s been pretty evident for some time,” Kauffman said. “I think the latest series of fiascoes and scandals have created that moment in time where we can get this done — where the public is aware, the public understands the impacts, and the public’s kind of fed up.”

Kauffman added that lawmakers should go beyond banning cash gifts and prohibit all gifts.  

But Smucker, who’s sponsoring a proposed ban on cash gifts, said he thinks it’s a “good first step.”

“It should be a given that we already have that in place,” Smucker said. He took office in 2008, right after lawmakers voted themselves a pay raise and a public outcry spurred them to enact reforms.

“The thought at that point was, we focused on disclosure and at least if gifts are disclosed, we’d see less abuse,” Smucker said. “I think since then what we’ve seen is that doesn’t work, and it’s not adequate, so I think that we need to be talking about outright ban of gifts — starting with cash.”

WESA will be surveying Pennsylvania candidates for federal and state office for the 2022 general election — tell us which issues are most important to you.