When Alabama governor Bob Riley called a special session of the state legislature last month, it was to enact what he hoped would be the toughest ethics laws in the nation. Alabama's existing laws, some of the loosest in the nation, had contributed to an influence-peddling scandal and an ongoing federal probe that has already resulted in the indictment of four state legislators and three gambling lobbyists.
But there's a reason lawmaking is often compared to sausage-making. The package of reforms that were passed in December and became law this week represent a significant improvement on Alabama's old rules, say observers. There were enough exceptions added to the package by lawmakers, however, and enough loopholes in the language that the state legislature will have to revisit the issue when it reconvenes in March.
Ellen Miller of the Washington, D.C. based good government group The Sunlight Foundation said, "You have to start someplace. " "[Alabama] is not leading the way or blazing new paths," said Miller, "but it is a first step."
Hugh Evans, general counsel for the Alabama Ethics Commission, a state regulatory agency with newly expanded powers, said that Alabama is now "at 75 percent of where we want to be."
"When you have so many different entities and influences on a particular bill, I don't think you ever get to 100 percent of where you want to," said Evans. "Everyone offered an amendment and so it was an amalgamation."
Gov. Riley, long an advocate of ethics reform, called for the special session after the October indictments, and after a November election in which Democratic losses may have been made still more sweeping by the party's perceived closeness to the gaming industry. Under Alabama's old rules, lobbyists could spend up to $250 a day on an individual legislator without disclosure, or more than $90,000 a year. The lax restrictions led to cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, like that seen during an ABC News investigation in 2010. At a national convention of state legislators last summer, student journalists working for the Brian Ross Investigative Unit found four Alabama lawmakers golfing with a gaming lobbyist instead of attending a seminar on good government.
Gov. Riley's proposed changes would have limited lobbyist spending on an individual legislator to $25 per occasion and $100 per year. As passed, the Alabama reforms address some of the alleged abuses that arose during a years-long attempt by the gaming industry to pass a law that would allow electronic bingo in Alabama. Specifically, there can be no more hidden transfers of money from one political action committee, or PAC, to another -- allegedly a means by which gaming lobbyists were able to funnel money to legislators.
The reforms also make it harder for lobbyists and legislators to go on beach and golf outings like the one witnessed by ABC News, because lobbyists are now barred from providing "things of value." Lobbyists are largely limited to buying food and drink for legislators.