For Immediate Release: December 20, 2010
Local Delegation Calls Special Session A Huge Success
Marshall County legislators believe Alabama now has some of the strongest ethics laws in the country. “We are all very proud to have been part of this historic sweeping reform,” says Senator Clay Scofield, “we accomplished what we went down there to do.”
The 7-day Special Session was unprecedented because it took place prior to the official Organizational Session of the legislature in January. Lawmakers worked well into the wee hours of the morning on several days to iron out differences in versions of 7 separate bills proposed by Governor Bob Riley.
“This means a more open, transparent, accountable government that will be responsive to our citizens’ needs,’ said Representative Kerry Rich, adding that ‘it will start to restore faith in government.”
For years, Republicans have pushed for passage of these reforms to bring more accountability and transparency to state government. Up until now, the Legislature failed to pass them year after year. Last month’s election results that gave Republicans their first legislative majority in more than 100 years breathed new life into efforts to reform state government.
The reforms passed by the House and Senate this week include:
- An end to unlimited gift-giving by lobbyists and others to public officials and public employees;
- Prohibiting legislators from holding another state job or “Double Dipping”;
- A ban the transfer of money between Political Action Committees;
- Elimination of “Pass-Through-Pork” spending;
- Ensuring that public, taxpayer-funded resources aren’t used to subsidize partisan political groups
- Subpoena Power for the Alabama Ethics Commission;
- Mandatory ethics training for elected officials and public employees at all levels of government and requiring those who lobby the Executive Branch to register as lobbyists with the Ethics Commission;
Ethics Code Overhaul / Lobbyist Spending Reform
Under the old law, there was no limit to what a lobbyist could spend on a public official. Now, there are strict limits on lobbyists and even the companies that retain lobbyists. A lobbyist can buy a meal for an elected official or spend $25 per occasion, but no more than $150 a year. Companies that hire lobbyists can spend $50 per occasion and no more than $250 a year. The substitute bill, which passed the Senate unanimously, includes some common sense exceptions for attendance at educational conferences and travel for economic development recruiting, events that are widely attended by other lawmakers and exempts reporting the presentation of plaques or certificates.
End of “Double-Dipping”
Beginning with the 2014 election, legislators will no longer be able to serve in the legislature and hold another state job at the same time. This is an issue that plagued the integrity of the legislature in recent years. Representative Wes Long believes it corrodes public confidence in government. “It presents conflicts of interest, time and duty for legislators and the state agencies which employ the legislators. This causes negative perceptions and stereotypes of elected officials and jeopardizes integrity, efficiency, impartiality and accountability in state agencies.” The State School Board had already banned double dipping in the two-year college system, but it only applied to that one agency of government. The new law removes the potential for abuse in any agency of the state.
Ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers
When a political action committee (PAC) gives money to another PAC, who may give it to another, and on and on, it becomes impossible to know the true source by the time it is given to a candidate. This has been one of the most powerful tools that special interests use to keep a stranglehold on elected officials without the public ever knowing it. By making the campaign finance process more transparent, voters are able to make more informed election decisions.
Stopping Pass-through Pork Projects
The effect of this law is to prohibit public funds from being secretly passed through from one entity to another at the direction of a member of the Legislature. Valid programs or projects simply have to be included in the budgets from now on.
Restricting Political Activity on State Time (payroll deductions)
The most controversial of the bills in the Special Session on anti-corruption reforms, this bill makes it illegal for any person employed by the State, a county, a city, a local school board, or any other government agency to use public resources to collect money, by salary deduction or otherwise, that will be used for political purposes. Currently, certain public employee organizations utilize taxpayer-funded, state resources to collect money from their members for the express purpose of influencing the outcome of political elections. Contrary to some misconceptions, employees can still have their professional and organizational dues deducted from their pay checks, just not contributions to political action committees.
Although Democrats held the bill up for 15 hours in the House of Representatives, the bill was passed 52-49 after they exhausted their efforts about 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday. “We shut down debate pretty quickly in the Senate’, Scofield said, ‘we took a vote shortly after convening and passed it 22-12.
The State Ethics Commission
The Alabama Ethics Commission has never had the authority or the tools to provide the level of oversight and transparency that Alabamians deserve. After working through several versions, lawmakers passed a bill that empowers the Ethics Commission by granting them the authority to subpoena witnesses and evidence for use in investigating ethics code violations. A four/fifths vote of the Commission is required to exercise this authority. The law also allows the Ethics Commission to share evidence found during an investigation with District Attorneys or the State Attorney General. The delegation agreed that having good ethics laws on the books would be of little consequence without some authority to investigate and hold accountable anyone who might try to get around the system.
“By mandating ethics training, which can be done on-line, for all public officials and lobbyists, as well as public employees who file annual statements of economic interests, we’ve brought this package of reform bills full circle,” said Rep. Long.
Today, Governor Bob Riley signed all seven bills into law, ushering in the beginning of a new era of accountability in government.
Rich says he wants to commend the other members of the delegation for their hard work. “ In their first session, Clay and Wes handled themselves as seasoned legislators, were very well informed and conducted themselves in a way that would make their constituents proud. I am really looking forward to working with them. I believe this Legislature will be different than Legislatures in the past. The new members are very bright and are dedicated to solving the problems facing Alabama.”For More Information Contact: (256) 582-0619
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