Have you seen the Pa. piggies … ?
After the shocking revelation that four state lawmakers were videotaped taking cash from an undercover informant, it seemed a virtual lock that the Pennsylvania Legislature would adopt a strict gift ban.
More than three months later, with the Legislature apparently wrapping up business until fall, there is no new law and those suspected of being on the take have not been brought to trial. Attorney General Kathleen Kane offered a slew of legal reasons for claiming it was a bad case to prosecute. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams disagreed and said it was worth submitting to a grand jury. There's been no word yet from the grand jury, which operates in secrecy.
Reformers last week, on the ninth anniversary of the ill-fated 2005 legislative pay raise, gave the General Assembly an F-minus on enacting a gift ban. Tough graders, they gave below-failing grades across the board.
You'd expect no less from Gene Stilp and Eric Epstein, who collectively irritate top leaders and staff more than their angriest constituents. Stilp, it should be noted, is a Democrat House candidate. Neither party wants him to have inside access. His critics would say all the publicity over the years Stilp has garnered might help win a job in the place he's repeatedly slammed.
Since the middle-of-the-night 2005 pay-jacking, overturned in the face of voter outrage, lawmakers received salary boosts worth $14,364 “by simply doing nothing,” Epstein says. That stems from an automatic pay hike awarded under a 1995 law tying the increases to inflation. The salaries are now $84,012, second highest in the nation behind California.
The 253-member Legislature spends more than $300 million a year, including $5.8 million in each chamber for “special leadership accounts” controlled by the respective majority leaders. Both chambers made a show of going through the motions to reduce the size of the Legislature. But even the first step of the constitutional change won't happen by the end of the 2013-14 session.
That brings us back to a gift ban and the narrow window for enactment in a brief fall session. The truth is many lawmakers like accepting gifts — not cash but Penn State football tickets, conferences, golf outings, even international trips paid for by foreign governments and businesses. Most were taken aback, though, at what one analyst called the “naked corruption” of legislators taking envelopes stuffed with cash from a Philadelphia lobbyist wearing a wire and video device.
“They can't enact a ban on cash even when you have four legislators on video taking cash,” Epstein said.
“The self-acclaimed advocates don't read the newspapers,” said House GOP spokesman Stephen Miskin, noting House leaders by rule banned cash gifts for House members. But violating a House rule is hardly akin to a crime. Having to face a paper tiger Ethics Committee scares no one.
House leaders imposed a written order prohibiting cash gifts. The Senate approved a rule and a bill. The Senate bill is pending in the House. Both chambers need to reach agreement and send the governor a total gift ban — not just cash, but sports tickets, golf outings and travel at special interests' expense.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).