State Legislatures Grapple With Ethics Reforms
While ethics reform has taken center stage in the nation’s capital in the wake of scandals involving prominent lobbyists and members of Congress, state legislatures are responding to improprieties of their own. In the current session alone, state legislators have introduced almost 200 bills dealing with gift bans, disclosure filings, lobbyist-funded trips and “revolving door” or “cooling off” periods for retiring lawmakers and their staff members.
Although most of these measures have failed to be enacted before adjournment or are still being debated, a few have become law:
- Iowa explicitly empowers its state Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board to promulgate rules for the reporting of gifts and to investigate complaints against executive branch officials, employees, lobbyists and candidates for statewide office.
- Maine requires its Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to maintain a registration list of lobbyists and their clients or employers.
- Tennessee’s “Comprehensive Governmental Ethics Reform Act of 2006” creates a six-person Ethics Commission, with subpoena power and jurisdiction over lobbyists and conflict of interest disclosures. The law prohibits cash contributions to candidates and political action committees (PACs) in excess of $50 and limits the total political contributions one person can make to candidates and PACs to $101,400 per election cycle. The law also requires legislators to disclose conflicts of interest; strengthens registration requirements for lobbyists; prohibits lobbying contingency fees; prohibits legislators and executive branch, cabinet member or cabinet level staff within the governor's office from lobbying within 12 months of leaving office. Campaign contributions to the governor and legislators and candidates for those offices from lobbyists are restricted, as are gifts from lobbyists to government officials.
- Virginia broadens and clarifies conflict of interest and financial reporting requirements for state officials.
Overall, about six states have debated legislation strengthening conflict-of-interest requirements, 15 have considered bills restricting gifts to legislators and seven have attempted to impose limits to address “revolving door” abuse.
Although the going has not been easy for these initiatives, it appears that state legislatures will continue to be grappling with reform issues next year.
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