The Alabama state legislature begins meeting today to consider replacing ethics laws for state legislators that critics say are among the loosest in the country with strict limits that may be among the toughest.
Outgoing Gov. Bob Riley, long an advocate of ethics reform, called for the special session after the indictment of three gambling lobbyists and four state legislators for allegedly trading votes for cash, 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 existing rules, lobbyists can spend up to $250 a day on an individual legislator without disclosure, or more than $90,000 a year. The lax restrictions have led to cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, like that seen during an ABC News investigation earlier this year. At a national convention of state legislators, 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 limit lobbyist spending on an individual legislator to $25 per occasion and $100 per year.
Ellen Miller, executive director of D.C.-based government watchdog The Sunlight Foundation, called Riley's proposed changes "good, solid steps forward." She had termed Alabama's current rules "outrageous" and among the worst she'd heard of at the state level.
Miller suggested, however, that Alabama also require that lobbyist spending reports be filed immediately. "To be meaningful in today's world, all these reports have to be filed electronically and in real time, not months after a gift is given, a lunch is eaten or a trip is taken. This kind of sunlight will stop bad stuff from happening."
Jim Sumner, director of Alabama's Ethics Commission was enthusiastic about Riley's plan. "This proposal will move Alabama a quantum leap forward in terms of ethics, accountability and transparency in government," said Sumner. "I think it's very comprehensive and really goes a long way toward filling gaps that we've had in the law in Alabama for a long time." Sumner's agency would receive increased authority and subpoena power under the proposal.
Sumner had long advocated for a reduction in the spending limit. He called the existing rules "outlandish ... It's far above the norm for hospitality and entertainment around the country."
Though many states are permissive, like Alabama, others have far stricter rules on gift expenditures. Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and South Carolina are considered "no cup of coffee states," where lobbyists cannot give a legislator anything -- not even a cup of Joe. In Arizona, lobbyists can spend just $10 a year on a single legislator before disclosure is required. In California, it's $10 a month.
In announcing his new set of proposed rules for Alabama, Gov. Riley said he believed they would be "the toughest in the country."
"It gets us back to a more level playing field," he said.
In October, four Alabama state legislators and three lobbyists were among the 11 people indicted in an influence peddling scandal. The indictment alleged that the lawmakers and lobbyists broke the law by trading votes for cash and other perks in order to pass legislation allowing electronic bingo.