Published: Sunday, December 19, 2010, 6:30 AM
Also contributing: Report David White -- The Birmingham News
MONTGOMERY -- Groundbreaking. Sweeping. Historic.
Incremental. Politically-motivated. Filled with holes you can drive five Mack Trucks through.
These are some of the descriptions of the package of ethics bills approved by the Alabama Legislature in the special session that ended last week. Gov. Bob Riley is expected to sign the bills Monday.
Many legislators and observers say the ethics measures will change Montgomery for the better. But there's disagreement on whether those changes are giant leaps or small steps.
"Alabama's political system underwent more historic change and more reform during the seven-day special session that just concluded than we've ever seen before. Because of these landmark reforms, state and local governments in Alabama will operate more honestly, more openly and with more accountability," Riley said.
"I think there are some good changes ... I don't think it as sweeping as it's been reported to be or was intended to be," said state Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia.
In the session, legislators crossed off many items that had long been on reformers' to-do list, including a ban on transfers between political action committees and restrictions on lobbying.
A centerpiece of the session was new limits on what lobbyists, and the people and companies that employ lobbyists, can spend on public officials.
"I think it turns the culture of Montgomery upside down," Alabama Ethics Commission Director Jim Sumner said.
Meal ticket clipped
Lobbyists have been able to spend anything they wanted entertaining a public official and have not had to report it until they spent $250 in a day.
Lawmakers approved limits that ban gifts and would allow a lobbyist to spend no more than $25 on a meal for a public official, with a limit of $150 a year per official. The companies and people that employ lobbyists would be able to buy an official a meal costing up to $50, with a total limit of $250 per year.
Gone are the days of free Iron Bowl tickets for lawmakers, nightly dinners and trips to sporting events, Sumner said.
"We have changed expenditures from $250 a day to $250 a year. It's been pretty commonplace that we've had lavish dinners, entertainment of all types, athletic tickets, trips, golfing, fishing, et cetera. None of that was ever reported because it didn't bridge the $250-a-day threshold. Now, most of that is off the table," Sumner said.
Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, sponsor of the bill rewriting the spending limits, said that, compared to Alabama's old system, the new law will be "amazing."
"We zeroed in on, 'Let's limit the lavish wining and dining, the junkets, the unlimited social occasions, the sporting events,'" Taylor said.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said the bill definitely will mean a change for lawmakers.
"I certainly think that it will change a lot of eating habits in Montgomery," Sanders said. He laughed and said he doubts the lack of swanky dinners will have much effect on legislation passed by lawmakers.
"I have not seen the evidence that a ... dinner has caused people to vote differently," Sanders said.
The bill does include several exceptions -- more exceptions than Riley initially proposed -- and some say those are ripe for abuse.
There would be no limit on what a lobbyist or principal could spend on transportation, hospitality, meals and lodging expenses for lawmakers and their spouses to attend "an educational function" sponsored by a lobbyist or principal.
An educational function, according to the bill, must be organized around a formal program and "could not reasonable be perceived as a subterfuge for a purely social, recreational or entertainment function."
There also would be no limit on what a lobbyist or principal could spend on a "widely attended event," such as a dinner or reception at which more than 12 people "with a diversity of views or interests" were expected. Also exempted are "work sessions," but the bill does not define what qualifies as a work session.
Legislators at a minimum still will be able to attend events such as the receptions trade groups throw for them during the session. They also could attend events such as the Business Council of Alabama's annual conference at Point Clear.
Spending on such events still does not have to be reported until it hits the $250-a-day threshold.
Several legislators said the exemptions were needed so lawmakers could go to events like chamber of commerce luncheons without running afoul of the law. But others said the exemptions create large loopholes.
"You could drive five Mack Trucks through the holes in that bill," said Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham.
"It's not going to change one thing," Rogers said.
Black, who voted against the bill, said the exceptions are too vague.
"I'm not sure if it's an improvement or not, to be honest with you," Black said.
Black said he was unsure what the "diversity of opinion" requirement for a widely attended event would mean.
"What's that? I'm for Alabama? Who are you for?" Black said.
Taylor disputed that there are holes in the bill. He said events must meet specific criteria to be exempted. He said the bill is a vast improvement over current law, which permits lobbyists to pick up the tab for trips and purely social outings. "It's a giant leap forward for the state," Taylor said.
Kimble Forrister, executive director of Arise Citizens' Policy Project, an advocacy group for poor Alabamians, often has to compete at the State House with deep-pocket lobbyists.
Forrister said he is hopeful the gift restrictions will "level the playing the field," but he's concerned powerful lobbyists will find a way around the law.
"Whenever we do these reforms, I think you hold your breath to see. .¤.¤. I'm concerned they will come up with a whole lot of educational events at golf courses," Forrister said.
Another key bill legislators approved will ban transfers between political action committees, which make it hard to track the source of campaign contributions.
"That will be a big change," said former state Rep. Jeff McLaughlin of Guntersville. "We need to stop the shell game."
Legislators named the bill after McLaughlin, who tried for the past eight years to get a ban passed.
The bill also would ban transfers of money among private foundations or tax-exempt 527 groups, which can 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.
The political fund of a candidate for state or local office also could not receive more than $1,000 from the principal campaign fund of a member or candidate for Congress.
"It stops the laundering of campaign contributions," said bill sponsor Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia.
There still will be ways to obscure the source of campaign funds. It could be hard to trace money that is mingled in a PAC or political party or that comes from out of state. But McCutcheon said the bill will stop the most flagrant hiding of money.
Black and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the ban on transfers of contributions will have the biggest long-term impact of anything approved in the session.
But McLaughlin said he had concerns with the bill as passed, and he would have liked it to be more explicit that PACs couldn't give to political parties.
"I think I'm glad my name is associated with it, but honestly after reading it today, I'm not sure," McLaughlin said.
Perhaps the most controversial bill approved during the session was one to prohibit the Alabama Education Association and other groups from collecting dues by payroll deduction. Senators who opposed the bill say they expect it will end up in litigation.
The legislation would prohibit deductions from government workers' paychecks to fund political action committees or to pay dues to organizations that use the funds to influence elections.
Republicans said it is improper to use state resources to collect funds for political groups.
"We're getting the taxpayers of Alabama involved in collecting political dues, and we should not be doing that," Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, argued at the House microphone
But Democrats contended Riley, a Republican, was trying to undercut a traditional power base for Democratic candidates.
"It was personal. It was all about Bob Riley versus Paul Hubbert," said House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden. Hubbert is executive secretary of the AEA.
AEA often has funded Democratic candidates and this year bankrolled attack ads that contributed to Republican Bradley Byrne's defeat at the hands of Gov.-elect Robert Bentley.
Not having payroll deductions could make it more difficult for educators to join AEA and hurt membership, but many Democrats predicted it won't.
"What it will do is, I think Paul Hubbert will not retire now. He will stay very active in keeping teachers organized," Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said.
Other changes approved during the session include a ban on "pass-through pork," the practice of a state lawmakers stashing pots of money at agencies or schools that they can distribute later.
Also approved was a bill banning legislators, beginning in late 2014, from holding another state government job. Lawmakers also voted to require people who lobby the governor's office for grants and contracts to register with the state.
The Alabama Ethics Commission for the first time will have the power to issue subpoenas, under another bill approved by legislators.
For years, Ethics Commission has been hamstrung while investigating complaints because it had no power to get documents or make people testify.
The commission could ask local district attorneys to subpoena documents for them, but that was a cumbersome process, Sumner said.
He said the change will, "allow us to get to the truth much quicker and much more efficiently."
Legislators did put checks on the commission's power. They provided an avenue for people to try to quash subpoenas, and they made the directorship of the commission subject to Senate confirmation.
"We are satisfied with the checks they put on subpoena power," Sumner said.
Reform in progress
Riley, who plans to sign the bills into law Monday morning, acknowledged some of the measures didn't go as far as he wanted. But he said Alabama has moved "light years" ahead.
"Does this mean there is no need for more reforms? Absolutely not. .¤.¤. But there is no denying this package of seven bills is a giant leap forward for Alabama," he said.
Overall, said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, legislators passed historic reforms.
"We delivered ethics reform to the state of Alabama, to the Legislature. I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's perfect. But I think (it) deserves to be said that we moved in an extremely positive direction for the state of Alabama," Marsh said.
Others said only time will tell how much Montgomery is changed.
"I really think we just have to wait and see what impact all of this has. There are too many pieces changing to be able to adequately predict how all of these will come together," Sanders said. "I hope they will make Alabama better. We just have to see."
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