Local lawmakers tout ethics reform as 'gold standard'
by Daniel Gaddy
Dec 19, 2010 | 1474 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Alabama Legislature early Wednesday morning passed seven historic bills regarding ethics reform, and local lawmakers say they are thrilled with the measures.

"Alabama is now the gold standard in regards to ethical standards for public officials," said Sen. Greg Reed R-Jasper.

Reed as well as Republican representatives Bill Roberts and Richard Baughn said they were encouraged by the ability of the newly-formed Legislature to pull together and accomplish something for the people of the state.

"I am so proud of what we did," Baughn said. "I'm elated."

The Alabama Legislature passed the seven bills around 3 a.m. Wednesday after a week-long special session called by Gov. Bob Riley. Aside from minor changes, the legislation is identical to what Riley proposed in the beginning of the session.

The bills include:

* House Bill 9: Bans the practice of transfers from one political action committee, or PAC, to another. PAC to PAC transfers often serve as a way to hide the source of campaign contributions to political figures.

* Senate Bill 1: Grants the State Ethics Commission the power to subpoena witnesses for investigations into corruption in Alabama politics.

* Senate Bill 3: Prevents legislators from having a job at any other state agency, including schools, colleges and universities. The practice is often referred to as "double dipping."

* House Bill 11: Requires many public officials and lobbyists to undergo training with the State Ethics Commission.

* House Bill 10: Prevents "pass through pork," which occurs when state money going to an agency or school is not specifically budgeted but is spent at the direction of a lawmaker.

* Senate Bill 14: Limits the amount of money lobbyists and their principals, the people who hire them, can spend on lawmakers. Lobbyists are capped at $25 per occasion and $150 per year. Principals are prevented to spend more than $50 per occasion and $250. Riley had originally proposed that all lobbyists report money spent on legislatures online. However, that measure did not pass.

Roberts said he was disappointed an amendment requiring the public reporting of gifts to legislators was not included. However, he said the bills passed have knocked a huge blow to corruption in the state and lawmakers can fine tune the legislation in the future.

"We made a tremendous improvement," he said.

The special session also included Senate Bill 2, which is often referred to as the "payroll deduction bill." This measure prevents state employees from having payroll deductions that go to a political action committee or an organization that uses the funds for political activities like polling or political advertisements.

The measure most directly affects the Alabama Education Association, which has received funds from state payroll deductions for decades. Most Democrats opposed the bill, saying it was simply a way to limit the political power of the AEA. However, most Republicans say the practice is an unethical use of government funds.

Butch Sargent, UniServ director for District 11, said the bill is Republican revenge against the AEA (the education organization primarily supports Democratic politicians). Sargent added the measure hampers the constitutional rights of educators.

"When teachers are at the mercy of politicians for every crumb they get, they have to be political," he said.

Each of the local legislators said they understand many people are unhappy with the payroll deduction bill, but lawmakers felt the measure was ultimately in the best interests of the state.

Baughn said he has heard varying estimates as to the cost to the state for handling the payroll deductions. Regardless of the amount, he said he believes it is immoral to use government funds to bring money to political action committees.

"I don't care if it's $5,000, that's wrong to me," he said. "It's not good for the people of Alabama."

Reed said he added an amendment to the legislation that gave organizations 90 days to set up a new system to replace the payroll deductions before the law stopped the practice.

"I felt like it was impossible to ask any organization to change in one day," he said.

Each of the local legislators said they were encouraged by the efficiency in which the bills were passed and believe the new legislature will continue to enact the laws Alabama voters are asking for.

"This (ethics reform) sets a whole new atmosphere and a whole new opportunity for political action," Reed said.

Riley will sign the seven anti-corruption reform bills passed during the special session into law on Monday at a ceremony in the State Capitol.