No budget, Wolf gift ban could dampen Pennsylvania Society in NYC

New York City’s famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel will host Pennsylvania’s most powerful people December 11-13.

“This is our 117th annual dinner,” said Carol Fitzgerald, who will play hostess.

The Pennsylvania Society dinner has honored a prominent Pennsylvanian since 1899. This year’s guest-of-honor is former Governor Ed Rendell.

“We are looking forward to a very robust attendance,” said Fitzgerald, The Pennsylvania Society’s executive director.

But attendance could be impacted by two developments.

First, a  memo from the Wolf administration reminding executive branch employees and cabinet secretaries of its gift ban that is very much in effect for Society weekend.

There are dozens of parties and receptions hosted by lobbyists, lawyers and PR firms throughout the city throughout the weekend. But the memo from the governor’s general counsel Denise Smyler states there’s no such thing as freebies for Wolf employees. If they accept an invitation, officials and employees should obtain the cost of the event from the host and preferably reimburse them in advance. It also says, “Officials and employees who violate the Gift Ban are subject to discipline up to and including dismissal.”

More than one Society Weekend party thrower called it awkward and silly. If we’re throwing a cocktail party with sandwiches and drinks, they said, how are we supposed to break out how much that’s worth? They added it’s odd and weird to collect money from party guests and questioned whether sharing a cocktail was really buying influence.

But government watchdogs applaud the governor’s effort.

“It’s good that there’s a gift ban being enforced for The Pennsylvania Society,” said Gene Stilp, a longtime critic of the weekend.

The second issue jeopardizing the partying is the budget, or rather the lack of a budget.

For many lawmakers it would be unseemly to be chomping on shrimp and drinking martinis in New York while schools are in jeopardy of closing back home. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) has already said if the budget’s a no-go, he’ll be a no-show. He won’t be alone in avoiding NYC.

“That’s really their call,” Fitzgerald said, confident that 1,600 will fill the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom. “That doesn’t impact on our celebratory evening honoring a great Pennsylvanian.”

But Stilp thinks the entire weekend is a preposterous display of pomp and circumstance that insults everyday Pennsylvanians.

“The Pennsylvania Society dinner is where the lobbyists go, the legislators go, the elected officials go, to sell their souls to the highest bidder,” Stilp said.

Stilp’s not the only critic. One prominent Pennsylvanian has called for years for the weekend to be moved south, swapping each year between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and skipping New York City entirely. That prominent Pennsylvanian is none other than this year’s honoree.

“It’s a shame to have all of those hotel rooms, and all of those meals, and all of the liquor-by-the-drink taxes, and all of that shopping go to New York state and New York City,” then-Governor Rendell said in 2008.

But Fitzgerald insists that for the weekend to be a success, participants must be in a New York state of mind.

“More is done for Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians in New York during that weekend than could ever be done anywhere in Pennsylvania,” Fitzgerald said.

“That’s because people leave their troubles back home and gather together in a collegial and warm Pennsylvania way to celebrate Pennsylvania.”

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