Friday, July 21, 2006

Legislators Still Hashing Out Differences On Lobbying,Ethics Reform Bill

Following action by the House in recent weeks on numerous ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying reform bills, the Senate approved HB 1843, which will overhaul the state’s ethics and lobbying laws by barring gifts and campaign donations from lobbyists and creating a more powerful state commission to monitor the behavior of state officials. The bill, which is slightly different than three separate bills passed earlier by the House, was not agreed to by the House on Wednesday and a conference committee, to which I was appointed, was set-up to reach a compromise.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill restrict gifts from lobbyists to legislators, more clearly define conflicts of interest and establish tougher penalties for violations. Economic disclosure statements for legislators and other government officials would also be more comprehensive. But the Senate’s version gives more power to a central state ethics board, which exists now only due to an executive order. The Senate version also bans lobbyists from contributing to state candidates, which some legal experts have argued is unconstitutional.

However, the Senate legislation offers more exemptions and loopholes regarding when lobbyists or groups interested in public policy could offer gifts, which House members have raised serious questions about. The term “gift” is more narrowly defined in the Senate bill, essentially allowing legislators to avoid reporting gifts from anyone who isn’t a lobbyist or lobbyist employer. Lobbyists could also give to legislators when the gift is received as part of a personal relationship. The Senate did decide to reinsert language making clear that legislative liaisons in state agencies also are subject to the gift giving restrictions.

House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said House and Senate negotiators have significant differences to work through in the coming days. The most difficult differences are likely to be the powers of the ethics board and how to craft no-gift ban provisions, he said. Hackney said a bill that had imperfections when it went to the Senate has even more on its return, but he promised legislators would pass a final reform bill before leaving Raleigh for the year.

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