Yesterday Gov. Bob Riley officially announced a special legislative session to deal with ethics reform to begin at 4 pm on December 8th. Riley said he and others who have worked on proposed legislation had reviewed the ethics bills of the other 49 states and tried to take the best that has been done elsewhere to give Alabama the toughest possible ethics standards. Fact sheets and text of the proposed legislation is available online for download -- all of the following are PDFs.
The fact sheets are nice, but if you want to know what's really being proposed you should go to the text. Even with the best intentions, things get lost in summaries. The bills are presented as revisions/additions to the Code of Alabama (see tab on the left at that page) so that's what the section and paragraph numbers refer to. I'm still studying the proposals but here are my initial thoughts:
1) It's disappointing that campaign finance reform is not part of the package. The lobbyist reforms are fine and needed, but it's also possible to buy undue influence through campaign contributions and those will remain effectively unlimited in Alabama. If you believe that $1000 football tickets can corrupt a public official, what about a $100,000 campaign contribution? Perfectly legal, not as uncommon as you think, and untouched by these reform proposals.
2) The $25 per episode/$100 per year lobbyist gift limit is a reasonable compromise between no gifts and the current anything goes situation, especially since reporting will be required for all gifts and the records will be available online. The devil is in the details and we should all be concerned that the "exceptions" may inadvertently open loopholes.
3) This is going to make a lot of additional work for the Ethics Commission. In the past the Legislature has starved them for budget to keep them from making trouble. Will that happen in the future so that on paper we have tough ethics and transparency, but in reality it isn't funded?
4) Subpoena power for the Ethics Commission = GOOD. Again, they're going to need a budget increase.
5) It's long past time the PAC to PAC money laundering was stopped. The language proposed clarifies the PAC to PAC prohibition but I think it needs careful scrutiny as to the definition of allowable behavior for party committees. It may spark a proliferation of new "caucuses" and other party/non-principal committees. Those with money will be looking for a way to use it. Don't leave them any more back doors. Here is the relevant definition from Section 17.5-2:
10) POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE. Any political action committee, club, association, political party, or other group of one or more persons which receives or anticipates receiving contributions or makes or anticipates making expenditures to or on behalf of any elected official, proposition, candidate, principal campaign committee or other political action committee. For the purposes of this chapter, an individual who makes a personal political contribution shall not be considered a political action committee.
(11) PRINCIPAL CAMPAIGN COMMITTEE. The principal campaign committee designated by a candidate under Section 17-5-4. A political action committee established primarily to benefit an individual candidate or an individual elected official shall be considered a principal campaign committee for purposes of this chapter.
... and the passage from the proposed new law:
"(b) It shall be unlawful for any political action committee, including a principal campaign committee, to make a contribution to any other political action committee. Notwithstanding the foregoing, any political action committee that is not a principal campaign committee may make a contribution to a principal campaign committee."
Now, it's pretty clear that a party PAC is allowed to receive money and pass it to a candidate's PAC (principle campaign committee), which is either fine and dandy or level 1 laundering depending on your point of view. But does this mean a candidate's PAC can't contribute to a party PAC? Or for example the Tea Party PAC can't contribute to the Tea Party Senate Caucus PAC or the Low Tax PAC? I think it does, and that means there won't be any more giving money to powerful elected official X's PAC so that X can spread the largesse around and make friends while in office ... or help friends get elected to office. Which will mean that the party PACs (or new caucus PACs or some other non-principal PACs) will be the only way to pool money to support some particular legislative agenda. Will official X simply set up another PAC, perhaps The X Caucus, so that he can continue to solicit contributions not for his own election expenses, but to be used in an effort to garner points with colleagues who need campaign cash?
6) Pass through pork. It needs to be addressed. Just having the checks publicly available after the money is spent was insufficient.
7) Restricting political activity on state time - this is aimed at stopping state payroll deductions for PACs of the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Employees Association. This is currently working its way through the courts. We've all seen public officials campaign for re-election or election to a higher office while on state time. Despite the title, this piece of legislation does nothing to make it easier to find out whether that's happening. In other words, you still can't see if Official Z took leave to attend that Tea Party Rally on a weekday afternoon.
8) Republicans couldn't propose ethics reforms without a ban on double-dipping, one of their favorite boogey men. This one does not single out teachers, but specifies that "a member of the Legislature, during his or her term in office, may not be employed by any other branch of state government, any department, agency, board, or commission of the state, or any public educational institution including, but not limited to, a local board of education, a two-year institution of higher education, or a four-year institution of higher education." Emphasis mine. Across the board is the only fair way to do this, but I'm concerned that the language of this legislation focuses too much on educators. Are there loopholes in the making for other folks?
9) Ethics training for everyone. I've been through a lot of ethics classes as both a contractor and a civil service employee. In most cases what they teach is the difference between right and wrong that you either learned by age 10 or you're never going to learn. However, given the complexity of the new lobbyist gift proposal and the rules Montgomery has been running on, there does need to be training and it should include a very simple fact sheet officials can post in their offices. Maybe a laminated, credit card sized list of do's and don'ts to keep in their wallets would be handy as well.
Below the fold is video from Riley's press conference yesterday and his response to some of the questions raised.