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Pa. lawmakers are allowed to accept unlimited gifts from lobbyists. A new bill would change that

Lindsay Lazarski

Pennsylvania's state House of Representatives on Monday began advancing a package of bills aimed at lobbyist influence, including limiting gifts from lobbyists and prohibiting lobbyists from trying to influence an elected official for whom they also worked as a campaign strategist.

The bills won passage in the House State Government Committee, and require floor votes in both the House and Senate to get to Gov. Tom Wolf.

One of the centerpiece bills would bar state officials, including lawmakers, from letting a lobbyist pay for their transportation, lodging, recreation or entertainment, and limiting gifts from lobbyists to $250 in value each year.

Wolf in 2015 banned employees under his jurisdiction from accepting gifts of any amount, but lawmakers still allow themselves to accept gifts in unlimited quantities from anyone seeking to influence them.

That has prompted demonstrators from MarchOnHarrisburg to interrupt legislative voting sessions in recent years, protest at lawmakers' offices and mount a “ stop taking bribes ” campaign aimed at lawmakers.

Gift-ban legislation has been introduced before and died.

But MarchOnHarrisburg's executive director, Michael Pollock, said he is optimistic that the group can get enough key members of House and Senate Republican leadership on board this time to win passage of what the group sees as an essential anti-corruption measure.

MarchOnHarrisburg’s members have sought, without success, to get a commitment from Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman. They also showed up at his golf course fundraiser earlier this month and, on Monday, tried to talk to him about it in the Capitol.

“He got out of the conversation as quickly as he could with a ‘no comment,’” Pollock said.

Corman's office separately declined comment on whether he supports a gift ban.

Lawmakers and other candidates for state office in Pennsylvania can still accept campaign contributions in any amount from any person, including lobbyists and people who get contracts from state agencies or the Legislature.

Lobbyists, their clients and trade associations in Pennsylvania also routinely provide lawmakers with free meals, travel and tickets to sporting events, destination conferences or entertainment venues.

Most other states have laws limiting the extent of gifts that lawmakers may accept, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania have made no move to impose so-called pay-to-play rules or limit campaign contributions, although both chambers approved internal chamber rules banning most types of cash gifts to members in 2014 following a scandal.

Another centerpiece bill is aimed at lobbyists or lobbying firms that also provide campaign management services, legislation sought since at least 2015 by a handful of Republican state senators complaining about the growing influence of such firms connected to top GOP lawmakers.

Under it, a lobbyist would be prohibited from trying to influence a state official, or an employee on the official's staff, after having served as a campaign consultant to the official.

The prohibition lasts for that elected term and also applies to a lobbyist who had a financial interest in a firm that provided campaign services.

A separate bill targets the revolving door between lobbyists and the Legislature’s staff. It would prohibit a legislative employee from being lobbied for a year by colleagues at their former lobbying firm.

Several bills address transparency.

One would require lobbyists to bolster their reporting to the state by disclosing their ownership stake in a lobbying firm. A second would require lobbying firms to disclose instances when they ask a client to waive a conflict of interest that the lobbying firm has with another client.

Another bill bans lobbyists, lobbying firms and their clients from giving or receiving referral fees.

Yet another bill would bar a state entity from hiring lobbyists or campaign consultants to influence another state entity.