So, to be clear, I can give my city councilwoman a Ronco Rotisserie & BBQ Oven and a wad of ones but can't tip trash collectors at Christmas. Ethics board executive director Shane Creamer Jr. told me: "You could give them baked cookies."
I'm sure that will go over big.
A $200 limit and $50 for an individual in cash doesn't pass the smell test. In what other world do strangers hand out cash? (Oh, right, the criminal one.) In this area, Mayor Nutter is to be commended. He has long prohibited executive and administrative staff from accepting gifts of any amount. I've had deputy mayors refuse a cup of coffee, and it wasn't even a latte.
There may be a cap on the gift amount from one source, but there's no cap on the number of sources who give you those capped gifts. There's nothing stopping a city employee from receiving $200 gifts from a multitude of donors.
We already give members of City Council and the Pennsylvania legislature the nifty present of summer vacations that last longer than those enjoyed by children. These are paid breaks from legislating - their principal task along with passing budgets - so elected officials can attend picnics and chicken dinners, woo constituents, and thereby retain their seats, all of which are paid for by you, the taxpayer.
But, if that's not enough, feel free to treat them to a golf outing or rotisserie oven.
Pennsylvania, you will be shocked to learn, is far worse about ethics than Philadelphia. When I asked about state limits on gifts, Barry Kauffman of the watchdog group Common Cause PA said: "This will be a very short conversation. There are no limits. We have one of the most lax sets of laws in the country." As Kauffman testified before a House committee last month, "Gifts buy access."
Perhaps we could print that on T-shirts and hand those out as gifts.
Gifts over $250 and hospitality and entertainment over $650 must be reported, but there's nothing stopping our lucky state officials from taking - excuse me, accepting - more.
That's how Gov. Corbett ended up taking a donor-paid vacation to Newport, the yachting playground, with a good friend and donor who happens to be in the fracking business.
Or how House Speaker Sam Smith played golf at Pebble Beach - golf a trend among Harrisburg gifts - with payday-lending lobbyists while the rest of the legislature tackled budget issues.
Or how Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati attended the 2011 Super Bowl, his ticket, plane ride, and hotel bill lovingly paid for by one of the state's largest energy concerns.
To be fair, Scarnati's super fun vacation wasn't perfect. The Steelers lost. And Scarnati ultimately reimbursed the energy company - but only after his trip was made public.
Serving in high office is a potential Christmas every day. Or, more precisely, a Super Bowl. And I haven't even mentioned the sweepstakes of sitting on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
Top state officials aren't getting knit sweaters from fixed-income grandmothers. They tend to receive big gifts from deep-pocketed companies with substantial state business.
"It's human nature that the people who treat us nicely tend to be treated nicely in return," Kauffman said. "The difference is that when these people are treated nicely, they might get multimillion contracts, whereas when someone treats me nicely, he might get a CD."
The city Board of Ethics is attempting to do better, but, really, how hard is that? The board should be stricter, tougher, and shrink the gift allowance down to a cup of coffee, possibly a latte. I asked Creamer if I could give him some cash. "Never," he told me, which should hold true for everyone else.