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One key GOP leader could stand in the way of legislation limiting gifts to elected officials

Carolyn Kaster

On today’s episode of The Confluence: A bill in the state legislature could limit elected officials and state employees from accepting certain gifts, a stark contrast to the state’s current lax regulations, but state Sen. Jake Corman has yet to weigh in on the bill, despite his GOP counterparts supporting the legislation; Pittsburgh Mercy has opened their winter shelters to accommodate homeless people in dangerously cold weather with COVID-19 mitigation measures in place; and a look at how mental health experts are treating anxiety around climate change.

New legislation could limit gifts to state lawmakers, with some exceptions
(0:00 - 7:54)

Pennsylvania lawmakers and government employees have been able to accept almost any gift of value, regardless of who sent them or what stake in government they might have. Under current guidelines, lawmakers are only required to report gifts over certain dollar amounts on annual statements of financial disclosure.

This practice has been in place for years, but now there’s Republican support in Harrisburg to place limits on gifts to public officials and employees.

“The way it’s worded, it would prohibit any elected official or government employee from accepting more than $250 in gifts for what the legislation calls non-governmental use, from a lobbyist or lobbying firm, or somebody who has hired a lobbyist,” explains Angela Couloumbis, a reporter with Spotlight PA. “The problem with the way it’s worded right now, it’s sort of short on definitions. The legislation doesn’t really define, for instance, what ‘non-governmental use’ is.”

Couloumbis says other critics say the bill leaves the door open for accepting gifts from non-lobbyists who may still want something from an elected official.

A number of GOP leaders in the state House and Senate have been broadly supportive of a gift ban, even if they aren’t in support of this specific bill. They include House Speaker Bryan Cutler, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward.

“There is only one major leader who has not taken a public position on a gift ban, and that’s Senate President Jake Corman,” says Couloumbis. “It’s unusual for a person in that position to not really take a stance on something that is moving pretty quickly by Harrisburg standards in the legislature, and you have to wonder why that is.”

The House bill has passed the State Government Committee and is positioned for a floor vote, however Corman could keep the bill from going to a floor vote in the Senate. If it’s going to become law, it has to pass both chambers by the end of 2022 and get Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature.

Winter shelter has opened to support unhoused Pittsburghers
(7:57 - 14:40)

As temperatures drop, it becomes more dangerous to be outdoors at all hours. Pittsburgh Mercy’s Winter Shelteropened this week to host unhoused people looking for a warm place to sleep, along with other services, but COVID-19 remains a risk for people in congregate settings.

“We’re hoping, or making an assumption that we’re going to have similar levels [of people at the shelter] that we had at our peak last year,” says Dr. Jack Todd Wahrenberger, chief medical officer at Pittsburgh Mercy.

At the peak last season there were 50 men staying overnight in the shelter and 10 women. Last year Pittsburgh Mercy set up two shelters, splitting residents by gender, to help protect residents from COVID-19.

This year, there’s only one shelter location at Smithfield United Church of Christ Downtown, which Wahrenberger says will allow for more efficient care.

Pittsburgh Mercy is taking some of its lessons learned from last year into this season. Precautions include testing people for COVID-19 upon arrival and offering vaccinations to people, though residents do not have to be vaccinated to use the shelter.

Wahrenberger says the team also improved how they help residents who test positive for COVID-19, which they need to transport to a hotel for quarantining.

“I think we’ve gotten better at being able to tell people in a way that doesn’t sound as catastrophic and can get them taken into quarantine in a timely fashion, and not have it feel like we’re throwing you into jail because you did something wrong, or you’re a bad person,” says Wahrenberger.

The biggest challenge within the shelter, he says, is still getting folks to wear masks properly and consistently.

“I just think as a society we’re all getting better at wearing masks because it doesn’t seem like it’s such a strange new world to us anymore.”

Climate change is affecting the mental health of young people, but experts are trying to help
(14:41 - 22:30)

The looming specter of climate change is causing anxiety in a growing number of people, not just those forced out of their homes by storms or wildfires, but also those who hear about natural disasters, and what’s predicted to happen in the coming years.

In a two part series, The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant reports on how the mental health community is trying to help.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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