Riley: Ethics law among nation’s toughest

Published 6:07 pm Thursday, December 16, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — In a major victory for outgoing Gov. Bob Riley, the new Republican-controlled Legislature has passed a package of seven ethics bills that he says will amount to a “sea change of historic proportions” for Alabama politics.

The Legislature worked until nearly 3 a.m. Thursday to finish passing slightly revised versions of the seven bills Riley proposed when he last week called a rare lame-duck special session. Riley had been trying to get some of the bills passed for years, but had no success when Democrats controlled the Legislature

“The Republican Party delivered ethics reform to the state,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

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Actually, most of the bills passed with strong bipartisan support. Only one had nearly all Democrats opposing it. That bill, which some called political payback against the teachers lobby by the GOP, would end automatic payroll deductions for public employees to pay dues and make contributions to groups if they use the money for political activity.

For the public, two bills from the special session will have the most visible impact on Alabama politics, according to Marsh. One is designed to give voters a better picture of who is funding campaigns. It bans money transfers between political action committees before it is given to a candidate, a practice used to disguise donors.

“It adds 100 percent transparency if everyone follows the law,” Alabama’s chief election official, Secretary of State Beth Chapman, said of the measure.

Marsh said the other key bill ends unlimited spending by lobbyists to entertain public officials. A lobbyist could not spend more than $25 on a public official at one occasion and $150 in a year. The people or groups who hire a lobbyist would be limited to $50 per occasion and $250 in a year.

“The public will notice there won’t be as much wining and dining going on,” Marsh said.

The bill that emerged, however, was not as strong as Riley originally recommended. Riley wanted lobbyists to file public reports on their spending, but the Legislature left that out. Republican leaders said there was no need to require reports because the spending limits are so low.

Another bill passed by the Legislature would prohibit legislators from hiding “passthrough pork” — that’s money included in an agency budget that is not designated but is understood will be used for a legislator’s special project. Other bills would enhance the investigate ability of the State Ethics Commission by giving it the power to issue subpoenas; require those who lobby the executive and judicial branches of government to start registering with the Ethics Commission, as legislative lobbyists do; and prohibit legislators from holding a second job in state government or public education after November 2014.

“Passing all seven of these reforms represents a sea change of historic proportions and will make Alabama the new standard for ethical government in the United States,” Riley said.

Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said every bill except the payroll deduction bill enjoyed support from most Democrats. “We’ve created the toughest ethics laws in the nation and they were done in a bipartisan fashion,” he said.

But Bedford alleged that the payroll deduction bill was designed to punish the state’s politically influential teachers’ organization, the Alabama Education Association, by making it harder to raise funds. He predicted the legislation will be challenged in court and struck down.

AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert said the legislation is “a muzzle” that will prevent AEA’s local chapters from using dues to support a school tax or hold a forum for political candidates.

More often than not, the AEA has backed Democratic candidates in state and local races.

Riley, who leaves office Jan. 17, called the special session after Republicans won about 60 percent of the legislative races Nov. 2. The lawmakers took office last month, which allowed Riley to become the first outgoing governor to call a special session with a new Legislature since 1942.

Riley’s move came after three former legislators were convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges in Alabama’s two-year college scandal, and after four legislators were indicted in October on charges accusing them of buying and selling votes on pro-gambling legislation.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the special session’s impact will become clearer over the next few months.

“We will reflect on this week as one where we changed the way government operates in Montgomery,” he said.