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Wolf Endorses Brewster Bill on Lawmaker Gifts

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
August 26, 2020
Posted in: Politics & Elections

Editor’s Note: Clarified to note that Pennsylvania puts no monetary limits on gifts. There are other restrictions.

State Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport, shown with Braddock Mayor Chardaé Jones and representatives of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission during a recent tour of the Monongahela River, has introduced legislation to ban gifts from lobbyists to Pennsylvania lawmakers. (Submitted photo)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has lent his support to an effort by a McKeesport lawmaker to block gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers.

During a press conference Tuesday near Harrisburg, Wolf introduced his fall legislative agenda, asking the state house and senate to take up several proposals this fall, including additional aid for workers who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and for businesses forced to close or restrict operations.

Wolf also endorsed a proposal introduced by state Sen. Jim Brewster that would ban gifts from special interests to legislators.

Pennsylvania is one of only 10 states that puts no monetary cap on gifts to members of the state house and senate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The legislature must come back and take immediate steps to provide funding to frontline workers and businesses, put in place protections for families and our workforce, and make these common-sense reforms that can provide confidence in our government,” Wolf said Tuesday. “Pennsylvanians need relief, they need reform, and they need it now.”

Brewster first introduced legislation to ban gifts to legislators in 2015 and re-introduced the proposal this year as Senate Bill 646.

The McKeesport Democrat also has introduced legislation to end lawmakers’ per diems — payments of $177 per day for each lawmaker for meals, lodging and other expenses while the legislature is in session — as well as legislation to end taxpayer-funded leased vehicles for senators and representatives.

“I thought it was the right thing to do to protect taxpayers,” Brewster said Wednesday. “My effort to push these reforms forward has been well received by taxpayers in my district and throughout the state.

“The fact that the governor renewed his call for legislative reform will hopefully give my legislation the push it needs to ultimately become law,” he said.

Brewster’s bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. Timothy P. Kearney of Delaware County.

The bill was referred to the state senate’s Government Committee, which is chaired by state Sen. John DiSanto, Republican of Dauphin County.

But no action has been taken on the bill since May 2019. Both the state house and senate are controlled by Republicans, and Brewster, like Wolf, is a Democrat.

The state House Democratic Caucus this week endorsed Wolf’s legislative agenda and urged both chambers to take up the proposals.

The governor argued that COVID-19 measures and reform efforts, such as those introduced by Brewster, “have been stopped at every turn by the Republican majority.”

In response, state Republican leaders did not specifically address Wolf’s push to end gifts to state legislators. But they did dismiss Wolf’s legislative agenda — especially those aspects dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic — as grandstanding.

“For more than six months, the governor has lorded over Pennsylvania through executive order and today he wants to dictate to the legislature through press release,” said state Sen. Jake Corman of Centre County, the majority leader.

Corman called Wolf’s agenda a “political document” and accused him of taking “partisan shots” at the legislature.

For his part, Brewster said he has been calling for the elimination of gifts, per-diems and car leases for years.

“Removing the access to gifts and per diems will help make government more transparent and accountable,” he said.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, Pennsylvania legislators are required to report gifts worth more than $250 and any hospitality or lodging valued at more than $650, “but there is no cap on the total number or value of gifts or services legislators can accept from lobbyists.”

Pennsylvania law does prohibit public officials and candidates for elected office from accepting any gift “with the understanding that the vote, official action or judgment of the public official or public employee or nominee or candidate for public office would be influenced thereby.”

In 2017, another Mon Valley legislator, former state Rep. Rick Saccone of Elizabeth Twp., introduced a bill that would have banned legislators from accepting gifts.

Saccone’s bill attracted more than two dozen co-sponsors, but was never put up for a vote.

Brewster’s bill would prohibit legislators from accepting any “gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, hospitality loan or other thing of monetary value, including in-kind gifts,” from any person who has business with the state, conducts operations that are regulated by the state, or is engaged in court proceedings against the state.

The senator said he looks forward to debating his reform proposals when the General Assembly reconvenes in September.

Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published August 26, 2020.

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