Friday, December 21, 2007

Marion CO judge allows new ethics rules for legislators to take effect next month

Here's guardedly good news:

Oregon's new limits on what gifts lobbyists and others can provide to legislators and other public officials can take effect in January, a Marion County judge ruled Thursday.

A lawsuit challenging the rules says they are an unconstitutional limit on political speech. The new rules, approved by the Legislature this year as Senate Bill 10, would limit gifts from those with a legislative or administrative interest to $50 a year to a public official, and they ban providing entertainment or paying honoraria to them.

Why only guardedly good news?

First, the ruling only prevents a preliminary injunction against the new rules taking effect as originally scheduled; lobbyists will still get their day in court to press their case for gift-giving to grease the legislative skids for their clients as a free-speech right even as the new rules go into place.

Second, although SB 10 had some other provisions that would also interfere with the grip of moneyed special interests over the legislative process, it certainly won't break that grip. Improvements include: providing dedicated, politically insulated funding for the state ethics commission, increasing fines for ethics violations, and adding a 1-year waiting period to the revolving door between the legislature and lobby shops.

But the bulk of commentary and contention has been centered around the provisions governing how much and what kind of "gifts" can be given to legislators by lobbyists. When the heart of the debate isn't about removing the temptation toward impropriety--and certainly not the appearance of it--but only about tweaking the line between "gift" and "bribe," it shouldn't be a comfort to any Oregonian.

Third, it's not just the question of where the money comes from that should leave Oregon voters hungry for something better than SB 10; there's also the question of where the money goes:

[Janice Thompson, executive director of Democracy Reform Oregon,] says SB 10 left gigantic issues unaddressed, regardless of the pending lawsuit or the outcome of public hearings Jan. 18 in Salem on the administrative rules.

Although SB 10 toughens rules on tens of thousands of public officials who never went to lobbyist-sponsored luaus or were showered with corporate bling, it does nothing to close the most gaping loophole.

Specifically, lawmakers continue to enjoy freedom from any limits on campaign contributions they collect. Oregon is one of only five states that has no restrictions. Second, candidates and elected officials continue to have enormous latitude in how they spend those contributions. Such freedom has, in the past, allowed officials to spend contributions on home renovations, car insurance and strippers.

So, while the new law means a lobbyist may only buy a lawmaker $50 worth of food and drinks annually and may not “entertain” the lawmaker at all, the lobbyist can write the lawmaker as many checks as the lawmaker can deposit. “The SB 10 limits are practically meaningless and allow all public officeholders to receive unlimited money in campaign contributions—even if they never intend to run for office again,” says campaign reform advocate Dan Meek. “The money can be used to pay for lavish vacations, Blazer tickets or even an apartment in Salem.”

Say it with me. Speech is speech; money is commerce.

(Cross-posted at Loaded Orygun.)

No comments: