Public servants aren’t supposed to serve themselves

Whether to impose a partial or full gift ban for elected and non-elected Pennsylvania officials again is a dominant topic of discussion.

On one hand, that’s due to next month’s primary elections, including gubernatorial balloting. Meanwhile, some of the discussion has been sparked by voter anger over the revelation of lawmakers allegedly accepting cash and other gifts from a purported lobbyist – actually an informant for the state attorney general’s office – and a probe into gifts received by former members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Public service should be about serving others, not about serving public officials’ own interests.

Pennsylvania should join the states that have total bans on their officials accepting gifts, as well as tougher limits on campaign contributions.

Despite all the talk currently going on, don’t expect any substantive action anytime soon. There is a way to quickly gauge the seriousness of the current discussion, however. It is as follows:

If the current talk by state lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett is serious, officials shouldn’t object to closer, more frequent scrutiny of gifts they receive. Instead of having to report gifts valued at more than $250 only once a year, they shouldn’t object to reporting all gifts valued at more than a cup of coffee once a month.

With that information in hand, the state should make that monthly information available to news media upon request, so the information can be disseminated to commonwealth residents quickly – not months later.

Under the current once-a-year reporting, most people are unlikely to pay as close attention to the gifts their elected state lawmakers and other officials receive because they don’t know when to be watching for that information.

If they knew that each month the information would be available to them, many residents interested in the effective functioning of state government would routinely watch for it, just like many pay attention to the food-business inspection reports that the Mirror publishes on Sundays.

Thus, the fodder would be available for public comment throughout the year, not just when some questionable actions have been uncovered or when incumbent politicians or other office hopefuls are trying to look good at election time.

As an article in last Sunday’s Mirror reported, the current annual gift disclosures filed by state lawmakers and members of the executive branch frequently deal with gifts ranging from jewelry to tickets to sporting events to all-expense-paid vacations. However, the article continued, even more blunt offerings like envelopes of cash technically are legal.

While the current new-gifts-rules discussion still is in the spotlight, commonwealth voters must make it clear that they want tough, new restrictions on gifts – and if that action won’t be forthcoming quickly, much more frequent reporting must take place in the meantime.

Voters don’t go to the polls to enrich their public servants; they cast their votes on behalf of good government.

Unfortunately, as has been shown so often in recent years, the voters haven’t gotten that for which they’ve voted.