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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sweeping Ethics Bill Goes to the Governor

At just before 3 a.m. Thursday, the Alabama Legislature passed sweeping changes to the Alabama ethics law that would limit spending by lobbyists, but also open the door for spending by other people and at other events.

House and Senate members concurred on changes to a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, that is much changed from the original version that he introduced at the beginning of the special session called by Gov. Bob Riley to overhaul ethics laws in the state. It's even different from the two substituted versions of the bill that moved through the Legislature.

Taylor's original bill would have capped spending by lobbyists to $100 per year and required them to report everything that they spent. The first substituted version of the bill, which was crafted by state Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, would have kept lobbyists from spending anything, but would have allowed those who hired lobbyists, or principals, to spend up to $250 a day before they had to report it. The second substitute of the bill would also have stopped lobbyists from spending anything to influence lawmakers, but would have capped what principals could spend at $100.

If the governor signs the version of the Taylor bill that is coming to his desk, lobbyists can spend up to $150 a year, and principals, which currently don't exist as a defined class under the law, could spend up to $250 a year.

"Nobody can argue you had $250 per day that was brought down to $250 a year," Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said of lobbyist spending on public officials.

However, there is no cap on spending at an "educational function or widely attended event," where people can provide "hospitality, meals, and other food and beverages" to public officials. A widely attended event is one with more than 12 people.

Taylor said the law would still include the existing portion requiring any expense over $250 a day to be reported. He said it also stops unlimited hospitality, lodging, and travel for purely social reasons. So, there would still be no reporting of spending on public officials under $250 a day and that would not pertain to certain events.

The bill passed Thursday does not include its own reporting requirement, which was included in the original version. Marsh said they did not see the need for the reporting since the cap was so low. He said they could add in a reporting requirement later if people believe it is an issue.

Taylor said the version they passed restored some of the strongest portions of his original bill. He had said the first version of the bill passed by the Senate created a "huge loophole."

Marsh said he expects the seven ethics bills passed in the last three days to change how people conduct business in Montgomery. He expects the bills, like the one passed early Thursday, to curb the cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers.

Marsh expects their action to limit some of the "wining and dining" of legislators.

Marsh said the Business Council of Alabama, whose President William Canary was at the State House until early Thursday, expressed concerns about the bill. But, he said, no lobbyists were allowed in the conference committee meeting between House and Senate members and he told BCA officials that they were not changing the bill after the committee met.

Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said he believes the passed bills give the state the most accountable, transparent government in the country.

The Legislature wrapped up the special session called by Riley at about 3 a.m. Thursday after passing the seven bills he was pushing.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen

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