If tightened and passed into law, the ethics-reform package announced this week by House Speaker David Ralston could restructure relationships between lobbyists and state legislators and in some ways alter the Gold Dome political culture for the better.
Its core proposal is a provision that bans, rather than caps, most gifts from lobbyists to legislators. In an interview Thursday, Ralston dismissed a competing proposal of a $100 gift cap, calling it a “gimmick” because it puts no limit on the number of such gifts that a lobbyist could offer or a legislator could accept. A ban is more easily understood by all parties — lobbyists, legislators and the general public — and more easily enforced as well.
However, while the bill bans gifts to individual legislators, it puts no limit on what lobbyists can spend on legislators in groups, such as a House committee or subcommittee. Among other problems, that loophole plays into the hands of the most deep-pocketed of special interests. Banking lobbyists, for example, could afford to take the entire House and Senate banking committees out for a night’s dinner and entertainment, while consumer groups could not. At the very least, the legislation should put a per-head limit on such expenditures.
The bill also does too little to address the common practice of showering influential legislators with all-expense-paid, multi-day trips to resorts under the guise of speaking to associations and groups. (To Ralston’s credit, it does ban payment of golf-course fees and similar expenses on such outings.) It’s part of a legislator’s job to speak before annual conventions of professional associations and trade groups, and it’s appropriate to have legitimate expenses covered. However, appearing on a breakfast panel doesn’t justify a three-day suite at a top-end resort, all meals and beverages covered. Limiting it to a one-night stay would solve the problem.
The package offers important reform in other ways as well. It would require legislators to quickly report all campaign donations received after January 1 and just before the annual legislative session opens. Ralston refers to that window as “a frenzy of fundraising activity,” when those seeking help from the incoming Legislature often make donations. Requiring quick reporting of such contributions at least makes that window transparent.
More important, the bill restores a degree of autonomy to the state ethics commission. Several years ago, as punishment for a ruling on the use of corporate jets, legislative leaders stripped the ethics panel of the authority to make its own rules, crippling its operation. That power would be restored under the speaker’s proposal.
Unfortunately, the biggest flaw in the Ralston proposal is a doozy and a potential deal-killer. For some unknown reason, the bill redefines “lobbyist” so broadly that a PTA president speaking to a local school board or a neighborhood association leader who testifies before a planning commission would first have to pay $300 to register as a lobbyist. The same would apply to anybody testifying before or sending information to a legislative committee.
That’s unacceptable and unnecessary, a message that legislators say they have received loud and clear. On Thursday, a House subcommittee promised to extensively revise that language by next week, and Ralston echoed that pledge in our interview. There’s simply too much good in this proposal to allow it to fail on such grounds.
– Jay Bookman