Cash Gift Scandal Puts Reform Issues Back on Table

Reports that lawmakers were captured on tape accepting cash from a confidential informant working for the state attorney general's office has brought back to center stage a concept that just a few years ago was everywhere in Harrisburg: reform.

The scandal, which broke in The Philadelphia Inquirer, has triggered several inquiries and forced both chambers in the Legislature to move toward new limits on the types of gifts lawmakers and staff are allowed to receive.

"Harrisburg only works in crisis mode, and now it's trying to manage another crisis of public integrity," said Matt Brouillette with the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank. "Hopefully this will cause some of the reforms that haven't been done to be revived."

It's been seven years since state lawmakers took up reform issues with enthusiasm. At the time, they were desperate to undo some of the damage from the dead-of-night passage of a big pay raise for themselves and others in government, and the subsequent revelation public resources had been commandeered for campaign purposes.

Several changes were adopted, including a curfew on floor sessions and more time for lawmakers to consider legislation before having to vote on bills. They also passed a comprehensive reworking of the state's Right-to-Know Law and vastly improved the amount and type of information about the Legislature's actions that is available online.

Other proposals stalled or simply disappeared, including merit selection for judges, term limits for elected officials, fewer House and Senate members, limits on campaign donations, improved elections and redistricting procedures, and a ban on gifts to public officials.

Dave Steil, a former Republican representative who co-chaired the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform seven years ago, said he was never sure about the momentum for reform in the Legislature.

"I don't see any movement for a new reform effort to change the methods by which the House operates," Steil said. "It seems rank-and-file members are perfectly comfortable to let the leaders run the place."

Late in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the Republican candidate broadcast an ad telling Pennsylvanians he was determined to achieve a number of reforms. As attorney general, Tom Corbett had overseen successful prosecutions of House members in both parties for the misuse of government resources for electioneering, a record he highlighted on the campaign trail.

Corbett, who went on to become governor, said he wanted to end "the perks and special privileges" in Harrisburg and vowed to "work swiftly with the General Assembly on any reforms needing legislative approval."

He said he wanted to eliminate per diem payments for lawmakers and others in state government and institute a cap on funds controlled by the Legislature's leaders. Neither has occurred.

Now that he's running for a second term, the issue of government reform is again a prominent element of his campaign.

As reform accomplishments, he points to reducing the number of state workers by 4 percent, getting most of the budget legislation passed by the start of the new fiscal year during his first three years in office, and eliminating some legislative earmarks.

He also includes cutting 1,800 vehicles from the state fleet and imposing new travel policies for state workers.

Corbett, who has accepted gifts while serving as attorney general and governor, has spoken in favor of a ban on cash gifts but has expressed practical concern about a wider prohibition on gifts to public officials, using as an example meals that friends might buy for him.

"I think the Legislature is going to have to be very careful in defining what they mean," he recently told reporters.

As for other reform topics, Corbett says he supports merit selection of appellate judges and wants to mandate online filing of campaign finance reports but opposes term limits or a cap on political campaign donations.

To some observers, he has not made reform a particularly prominent element of his tenure in office.

"A lot of time, the governor has the approach of, 'If something crosses my desk, I'll sign it,'" said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, who served with Steil on the reform commission. "There's a lot of issues the governor doesn't get out in front of, like a lot of other governors do."

The Democrats seeking the nomination to run against him in November have their own ideas, from U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz's plan to institute a chief integrity officer and campaign donation limits and former Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf's proposal to halt no-bid contracts with law firms to state Treasurer Rob McCord's ideas about making redistricting nonpartisan and revamping how economic development projects are selected and funded.

The cash gift scandal has moved issues of governmental integrity back to center stage. The governor and his opponents will have plenty of time to convince voters they know how to turn high-sounding ideas into actual changes.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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