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Ethics reform should call 'gifts' what they are

Courier editorial

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POSTED: March 27, 2013 12:11 p.m.

With the 2013 legislative session ending Thursday, the chance lawmakers will pass meaningful ethics reform to stop the practice of lobbyist gift-giving appears to be slim.
That’s too bad.
What we have instead are two versions of House Bill 142. The version passed by the House bans gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists, with some exceptions. Though the state Senate also passed HB 142, they replaced the outright ban on gifts with a $100 cap, but also limited exceptions to the cap.
Now, the two versions go to a committee that will try to hammer out a single bill both sides can agree on. In the meantime, neither the House nor Senate comes to the one conclusion that seems correct: Access to government — and government officials — shouldn’t be for sale.
So, as our state legislators attempt to police themselves, perhaps we should all think about what they’re talking about when they’re discussing this ban on accepted gifts.
For one thing, Merriam-Webster defines a gift as something that is “voluntarily transferred from one person to another without compensation.”
Bribes, on the other hand, are defined by Merriam-Webster as “money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust.”
You decide which applies.
At this point, the bill will either go away until next year or lawmakers will find a last-minute compromise. And it’s worth noting what they’re quibbling over. For example, the House version of HB 142 bans individual spending. The Senate version caps it at $100 or less per instance.
But the Senate wants to cap group spending at $100 as well, while the House version would allow lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts on committees, caucuses and other recognized groups, whatever that last qualifier might mean.
By contrast, the House wants to ban, with limited exceptions, gifts to lawmakers such as football tickets, meals and so on. The Senate would cap those at $100.
Both bodies would allow lobbyist-funded travel, with limits. The House would require it be related to official duties and not include airfare or travel expenses for spouses and recreational costs. The Senate version imposes similar limitations and adds the restriction that the travel must be within the U.S.
All of this is fine so far as it goes — since at least lawmakers are talking about the subject —but this attempt at lobbyist reform falls far short of the mark. True reform would call gifts what they really are while providing a mechanism to make sure those who accept them are booted from office for violating the public trust. It’s really pretty simple.

 

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