Alabama Ethics Reform: 75 Percent Is Better Than Nothing

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But Gov. Riley, who left office this month after two terms, did not get all that he wanted when it came to spending limits. Instead of his proposed $25 daily cap, the new limit is $50, and because of exceptions added to the bill Alabama continues to permit unlimited spending on so-called "educational meetings" and for meals at "widely attended events." While the first version of the bill said every expenditure would have to be reported, the final version includes no new reporting requirement for lobbyists, who previously only had to disclose any amount over $250 spent in a given day on a legislator.

"Whenever members are regulating themselves," said Miller, "you can always expect the lowest common denominator to be the law that survives"

Bradley Byrne, a former state legislator who is now with the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative thinktank, called the exceptions for educational meetings and widely attended events "two big loopholes." But he said that while he thought the lobbyist bill needed to be stronger, he still considered the new ethics rules to be "historic."

"All of these are much needed and game-changing laws," said Byrne.

Now, before the legislature comes back into session in March to tweak its pre-Christmas reforms, it's up to the lawyers to decide exactly how much of the game has changed. Hugh Evans, general counsel to the state's Ethics Commission, said that at a meeting of attorneys for both the bill sponsors and the state's lobbyists Tuesday, neither side was "able to figure out what they can and can't do."

"We concluded that there are a lot of ambiguities," said Evans, "and a lot of things that still need a lot more work."

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