LOBBYING DISCLOSURE AND GIFT RESTRICTIONS
Lobbyists can—and often do—exert an undue influence on policymakers.
This is possible, in large part, because Pennsylvania has no limit on the size or number of gifts that a policymaker can receive from lobbyists. What makes matters worse is that, as the Sunlight Foundation highlights, the state doesn’t require many basic reporting requirements.
The problem with lobbyist gifts got a lot of scrutiny in 2014 when a scandal broke revealing some members of the General Assembly took envelopes full of cash from an undercover informant posing as a lobbyist for law enforcement.
Although, in the wake of the scandal, the House and Senate each passed a rule that prohibits members from accepting cash gifts, most substantive proposals that would reform the laws on gifts from lobbyists have languished and died.
In 2016, members of the General Assembly reported a cumulative amount of over $145,000 in non-cash gifts received from lobbyists. However, lawmakers only have to report gifts above a certain amount (see below), so what members of the
General Assembly received in total from lobbyists in 2016 is likely much higher than the $145,000 reported.
The Current Process
Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states that place no monetary limit on gifts. As long as elected officials don’t promise official action in exchange, and report gifts on annual statements of financial interest, they can, in theory, accept anything from box seats to a football game to an overseas vacation. Lawmakers must report any gifts worth more than $250, and any travel, lodging or hospitality that is worth more than $650. However, a complaint must be filed in order for any investigation into a possible violation to be triggered. So, essentially, lawmakers police themselves.
The State Ethics Commission does provide a helpful search tool to review statements of financial interest.
In April 2014, the House Bipartisan Management Committee passed a rule prohibiting members from receiving most cash gifts, and the Senate passed SR339 imposing the same ban on senators. However, a more stringent law, SB1327, co-authored by Sens. Lisa Baker (R – Luzerne) and Lloyd Smucker (R – Lancaster), died after making it through the Senate chamber.
When he assumed office, Gov. Wolf imposed a gift ban for himself and staffers. And this past February, we celebrated when HB 1175 became law, increasing the penalties for filing delays and requiring electronic filing of lobbying reports. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Bryan Cutler with bipartisan support from former Rep. Brandon Neuman, passed unanimously in the House and Senate, and then received the governor's signature.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, many other states are prioritizing the need to improve their gift policy. We're working to make sure Pennsylvania does too. The National Conference of State Legislators put together a helpful overview of legislator gift restrictions by state, many of which provide exemplary models for Pennsylvania lawmakers to look to, such as South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Massachussetts.
Legislation, introduced in the House last year by Rep. Saccone (R – Elizabeth) would create significant limits on what gifts could be accepted by members of the General Assembly.