Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Alabama Legislature closer to tougher gift ban

Published: Tuesday, December 14, 2010, 5:30 AM
MONTGOMERY -- The Alabama Legislature is getting close to putting new limits on what can be spent wining and dining public officials.

? The House Ethics Committee on Monday approved a bill that would prohibit lobbyists from buying a legislator even a cup of coffee. But the bill still would allow the associations and businesses that employ lobbyists to entertain public officials at receptions and out-of-town conferences.

? Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said that, if lobbyists want to talk to lawmakers about bills, they'll have to talk in the legislators' offices instead of buying them dinner.

? "We're not going to be out at the Vintage Year or any of these high-priced restaurants," McClendon said.

? House and Senate committees on Monday approved the gift ban and six other ethics bills backed by Gov. Bob Riley, putting the proposals in line potentially to win final approval as soon as today.

? The House Ethics Committee approved the new version of the gift ban bill after Riley criticized a Senate-passed bill that did not include restrictions on spending by lobbyists' employers.

? The amended bill would prohibit a lobbyist from spending anything on a public official. However, the bill carves out exemptions that can be used by groups that employ lobbyists. Under the bill, non-lobbyists, businesses, associations and other groups still could invite public officials to:

? Widely attended events such as receptions to which every member of the Alabama Legislature has been invited and for which notice has been filed with the Ethics Commission at least seven days in advance.

? Educational conferences built around a formal program or agenda.

? Meals that cost $50 or less, with no more than $100 being spent on a public official in any one year.

? The bill also would allow gifts from friends under "circumstances which make it clear that the gift is motivated by friendship and not given because of the recipient's official position."

? Riley praised the House committee's version of the bill as tougher than the version passed by the Senate, which wouldn't have capped spending by lobbyists' employers.

? "The bill adopted by the committee restores integrity to the lobbyist reform proposal and to the anti-corruption package as a whole. I urge the members of the House of Representatives to pass the bill so the Senate may quickly concur," Riley said.

? Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, said the exemptions were designed to encompass legitimate events.

? "These provisions will give Alabama the strongest ethics code in the country," Taylor said.

? The House Ethics Committee also approved a bill that would stop the Alabama Education Association and other groups from collecting dues by payroll deductions. And it approved bills that would give subpoena power to the state Ethics Commission and prohibit a legislator from holding another government job. The dual employment bill exempts competitively bid contracts.

? A Senate review committee passed three other bills from Riley's ethics package Monday. Versions of the bills passed the House last week. The bills would:

? Ban transfers of money between PACs and other groups. Such transfers can hide a candidate's true source of campaign money.

? The committee expanded the House-passed version of the bill, which banned only PAC-to-PAC transfers. The committee rewrote the bill to ban transfers of money from PACs, 527 groups or private foundations to other PACs, 527 groups or private foundations.

? A tax-exempt 527 group can raise and spend money for political activities, including ads that attack or praise a candidate's positions but do not explicitly ask people to vote for or against the candidate.

? Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, who sponsored the rewrite, said, ''527s have been a powerful force in politics, and money ought not to be transferred from them to a PAC or from a PAC to them."

? Ban ''pass-through pork," state money appropriated to an agency or school but spent at the direction of a lawmaker for a purpose not clearly written in a budget. The committee approved the bill without changing it.

? Require people who attempt to influence the awarding of a grant or contract by the judicial or executive branches of government to register as a lobbyist. Now, people who attempt to influence the Legislature register as lobbyists, but not people who attempt to influence the courts or the executive branch.

? The bill also would require legislators, the governor and other state constitutional officers to attend training programs on the state ethics law provided by the state Ethics Commission.

? Officers originally included in the bill included the lieutenant governor, cabinet members, mayors, city council members and in some cases county commissioners. But the committee rewrote the bill to also require local school board members to attend the training programs.

? The Senate could give final legislative approval to the pass-through pork ban today. But if the other two bills pass the Senate with changes made by the committee, they would go back to the House for review.

? The House could go along with the changes, giving the bills final legislative approval, or disagree and ask the Senate to form a conference committee to draft compromise versions.

David White also contributed to this story.

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