By Andrew Staub
Not long after taking the oath of office, Gov. Tom Wolfmade good on promises to instill two good-government protections.
Wolf immediately signed executive orders banning gifts for members of the executive branch and prohibiting no-bid contracts for private law firms.
The new governor did not specifically mention the ethics reform measure in his inaugural address, but he spoke generally about “creating a government that works — one that is worthy of all of our trust.”
“I understand the indifference that some people feel. I understand why fewer than 42 percent of Pennsylvanians turned out in the most recent election,” Wolf said. “Our experience has made us cynical, but we cannot allow that cynicism to deflate our democratic spirit or destroy our capacity for effective self-governance.”
After making his speech, Wolf moved quickly to sign his first executive order, which immediately banned all employees, appointees and officials in the executive branch from soliciting or accepting gifts from those who seek to influence government. It makes exceptions for gifts from family and friends, bank loans and free participation in gatherings in which officials are acting in their official duties and have been invited.
The executive order will not apply to the General Assembly or the judicial system, but one good government activist called it progress.
“This is a significant moment and important step in setting a new ethical standard for Harrisburg’s political culture,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital. “This is also an invitation for the Legislature and the judiciary to follow suit and reset their moral compasses.”
Wolf followed with a second executive order requiring his Office of General Counsel and any executive department to use competitive bidding to award contracts for legal services.
The new governor made the ethics reform a key part of his first day in office, but he had talked about them during the campaign and in the months between the election and his inauguration. He had his transition team sign a code of conduct prohibiting them from accepting gifts and said he would institute the same rule for the executive branch upon taking office.
Wolf also disclosed those who donated to his transition and who contributed more than $500 to his inaugural committee.
While the Democratic governor could face plenty of political obstacles from a Republican Legislature, a poll from the Mercyhurst Center for Applied Politics found that 52 percent of registered voters were confident Wolf could work with a GOP-controlled General Assembly. Reform measures, such as a gift ban, could be a good place to start.
There are at least six proposals addressing gifts floating around the state House and Senate, raising the possibility Wolf and lawmakers could find some common ground despite their different political affiliations.
Right now, state lawmakers can dine out, play golf or accept trips courtesy of lobbyists as long as they disclose gifts of more than $250 and hospitality, lodging and transportation of more than $650. Attempts to change the law last year were unsuccessful.
Wolf’s press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said the governor hopes to work with lawmakers on ethics reforms and does not think those in public office should be taking gifts.
“That’s not why they were put in office,” Sheridan said.
While former Gov. Tom Corbett drew criticism for gifts he accepted while in office, Wolf started with a message that he and his staff just would say no thanks to such perks.
Epstein called it “an incredibly important and symbolic gesture.”
“It sets the right tone and ethical tone and puts Pennsylvania in a moral direction that we’ve been lacking heretofore,” he said.