Pennsylvania lawmakers propose laws to change state contracting, gift rules
HARRISBURG — In the aftermath of a Turnpike Commission scandal, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Monday proposed a package of reform bills they say might have prevented some of the contract fraud alleged in a grand jury report.
The legislators said recent accusations of pay-to-play practices at the Turnpike Commission might give bills for contract transparency some momentum.
“Timing here (in Harrisburg) is everything,” Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, said after a news conference. “Maybe on the heels of the turnpike scandal something can get done.”
The bills include proposals to require state contractors to reveal subcontractors they hire and the state to post online final scoring of bids.
“Money plays too large of a role in public policy,” Eichelberger said. “Shining a light on how much and who gets it will go a long way to ensure more objective decision making.”
Prosecutors last month charged an ex-senator, top turnpike officials and vendors, based on accusations from a state grand jury that they used the commission as a “cash cow” for campaign money. Campaign dollars and gifts helped companies land contracts, the report said.
The bills from Eichelberger and Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia, would tighten reporting of gifts and prevent lobbyists from serving as campaign managers for anyone seeking state office.
“We have to work even harder to make sure even the appearance of impropriety is a thing of the past,” said Stack, a potential Democratic candidate for governor.
Under Stack's bill, members of gubernatorial advisory commissions and task forces would be required to disclose contributions to the governor.
Since a 2005 middle-of-the night pay raise lawmakers approved for state officials angered the public and sparked the formation of reform groups, there's been no fundamental reform enacted into law, an expert said. Legislators subsequently repealed the pay increase.
“Has anything dramatic been done to change the heart of the process? No,” said Jack Treadway, author of a book on state elections and an ex-professor at Kutztown State University. There's clearly public support for some of the proposals, he said.
“I don't see reform (bills) seeing the light of day,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group. “I just see reformers wandering in the desert for 40 years.” Reform groups have held annual news conferences since 2005 pointing to the lack of substantial reform legislation.
Eichelberger said he continually hears newer members of the General Assembly say they want change.
Eichelberger proposes to lower the threshhold for reporting gifts and travel. Currently, legislators and executive branch officials must report gifts of $250 or more and hospitality of $650 or more. Eichelberger proposes reducing that limit to $50.
Eichelberger's bill would require any contributions from contractors to be posted on a state website.
The House on Monday defeated an amendment by Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County, which would have banned the award of contracts to companies that made campaign donations in the previous four years. It would have banned contributions during the term of the contract. It was defeated 109-89.
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.