Taylor: Hullabaloo grows over teacher gifts

Published 1:19 pm Saturday, December 17, 2011

State Sen. Bryan Taylor isn’t happy.

In fact, he’s downright frustrated, if one reads closely the editorial he released to statewide media on Friday.

Titled “Ethics law not the Grinch portrayed by the news media,” Taylor’s letter takes to task media outlets whom he says have unfairly represented the impact of the state ethics law on the issue of teacher gifts.

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“All I want for Christmas is factual, unbiased news,” his column begins.

He cites concerns over the coverage of Alabama immigration law and a “hullabaloo” that has erupted over the state’s new ethics law, which he helped write.

“An irresponsible news report absurdly suggested that under the new ethics law, teachers would go to jail simply for receiving reasonable Christmas gifts from grateful students. Needless to say, the story went viral,” Taylor writes.

“It was blindly repeated by media outlets across the state, and before long, it was even picked up by National Public Radio (news, with a shot of liberal smugness). NPR wouldn’t dare miss an opportunity to paint Alabama Republicans as a bunch of mean-spirited grinches out to steal Christmas from teachers. It was just too delicious to pass up, even if it was patently untrue.

“Never mind the facts. Perception is reality. The news report led many teachers and parents to believe that Republican state lawmakers had gone off the deep end, passing a law to ban sensible holiday gifts to teachers.

“In fact, the law in question passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (92-7 in the House, 31-2 in the Senate) over a year ago. It doesn’t ban reasonable Christmas gifts at all. And it doesn’t even mention teachers.”

Taylor goes on to point out the law is designed to guide all government officials and employees.

“The bill everyone is talking about is actually the ethics reform law I sponsored, which prohibits all government officials and employees from taking things like free Iron Bowl tickets, golf outings, hunting trips, lavish meals, and other substantial gifts offered to them just because they happen to hold a government post.

“Nothing in the law is intended to ban reasonable gifts from students to teachers at Christmas time. But no public servant – anyone who is paid by the taxpayers – should be allowed to profit from public office or employment.”

Instead, he says, the law includes a provision to allow public employees to accept “de minimis” gifts. It’s designed specifically to accommodate issues such as once-a-year Christmas presents.

But what is appropriate? In Massachusetts, teachers are allowed to accept gifts under $50, but must report all gifts valued over $10. Under federal ethics rules, all federal employees are limited to $20 “de minimis” gifts.

Yet, it’s still clear as mud to the common man.

“The Ethics Commission issued a ruling last week, concluding that certain gifts like ‘hams, turkeys, or gift cards’ don’t qualify as acceptable “de minimis” gifts, while saying things like books, scarves, and fruit baskets do,” Taylor said.

“However well intended, this part of the ruling created understandable confusion for school administrators, teachers and parents. (I have asked the Ethics Commission to reconsider its ruling, or the Legislature may address it in the next session).”

Of course, Taylor is quick also to point out that the Ethics Commission’s ruling came “in response to questions posed by the Alabama Association of School Boards – which questions were prompted by school leaders –who were being pressed by teachers and parents – who were sparked to anger by e-mails from AEA operatives accusing Republicans of “attacking educators again” with a law that allegedly targeted Christmas gifts to teachers.

“And that, dear friends, is how, right before Christmas, we ended up with a ridiculous news story saying teachers might go to jail because of an ethics bill that prohibits public servants from using their positions for personal gain.”

So Taylor is frustrated with the media. And the public is frustrated with what many perceive to be unintended consequences of the law.

And the simple act of generosity at Christmastime gets bogged down in statehouse politics.

If Santa’s still taking wishes, maybe he has an answer for the politics that plague progress.

Even the Grinch wouldn’t be able to spoil that Christmas miracle.


Stacy Graning is publish of The Messenger. Email her at stacy.graning@troymessenger.com.