Shortly before the 2013 legislative session ended, the House and Senate passed an ethics bill by a combined vote of 225-0. Such overwhelming, bipartisan actions often are hailed. Should this one be?
Before I answer, let me offer an analogy to kicking a field goal. No, not the one involving Charlie Brown and Lucy.
I mean the one Sen. Josh McKoon made just before HB 142 passed in his chamber. The Columbus Republican has been an early and tireless champion of ethics reform. After enumerating the final bill’s problems, including the way it came into being, McKoon explained why he’d vote for it anyway:
“It’s not everything we need to do, but it’s definitely putting points on the board,” McKoon said. “Tonight, let’s put this one through the uprights, but let’s be prepared to come back next year to score a touchdown on ethics reform.”
I sympathize with the position McKoon found himself in. I also think his analogy should go further.
The way football fans think about field goals depends on the situation. If your team is favored and kicks a field goal early in the game, you probably don’t sweat the fact it wasn’t a touchdown. If your team is a big underdog and the score is close, you’re probably happy with any score.
But if your team is already losing 35-0 and, after a promising drive, settles for three points just to avoid a shutout, I doubt it makes you feel much better.
That last situation describes my own thoughts about HB 142. It’s better than nothing, if only by the length of one link of the first-down chains.
While I had hoped for a stronger bill — and believe either the House’s original text or the Senate’s revision would have been preferable to what we got in the end — ultimately I compare this one to the status quo. Which, remember, does not limit the money lobbyists can spend on elected officials.
Compared to the status quo, this bill does place at least some limits on at least some people who lobby. Tickets to sporting events, concerts and the like from registered lobbyists to lawmakers are now off-limits. So are lobbyist-paid golf outings and hunting trips. Lawmakers’ travel to conferences cannot be reimbursed if it’s outside the United States, though other than that the sky’s the limit.
The bill caps the amount any one lobbyist can spend at any one time on any one legislator at $75. But it allows for a lobbyist to spend $75 on legislators as many times as he desires, and for groups of lobbyists to each throw in $75 a pop for their favorite lawmaker.
The bill actually makes one longtime problem much worse. Anyone who’s spent much time under the Gold Dome knows there are attorneys who “represent” their clients before lawmakers — read: lobby — without registering.
Both the House and Senate addressed this problem in earlier versions of HB 142. But the final text turns what today is a debatable loophole into an expressly legal practice — one that allows attorneys to skirt altogether what new limits the bill does impose.
There is no 35-point play in football. A trailing team usually needs to score whatever points it can, whenever it can.
But football teams don’t overcome large deficits without scoring every time they get the ball. Our legislators will get the ball back next January. They better have a gameplan for scoring again then, or the “fans” won’t be happy.
– By Kyle Wingfield