Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: Surveying the new "ethical" landscape

  The first legislative regular session of the quadrennium is looming. Our new Republican led majority House and Senate will convene on March 1 for the four month 2001 session. There are a good many GOP freshmen in the group. However, they are no longer greenhorns. They have an organizational and special session under their belts.

  The sweeping and significant overhaul of our state ethics laws passed by these legislators shortly after they were elected may very well be looked at four years from now as their hallmark accomplishment of this term. This ethics reform legislation passed by this GOP led legislature will change the culture of Montgomery.

  Our original ethics and campaign finance laws were passed in the 1970’s. Most states passed ethics reform legislation as response to the Watergate scandal. Our laws were very similar to most states as many states used a model act to design and craft their laws. However, Alabama’s laws, like other states over the years, became the subject of subterfuge and craftiness to get around the original intent and language of the acts.

  The most brazen detour around our ethics laws may have been the use of a PAC to PAC money laundering system used to get around our campaign finance reporting system. This shell game has been banned by the new laws. The transfer of money between political action committees, which hides the original source of a contribution, may be the linchpin of the cadre of ethics clean up bills passed in the December special session.

  Other corrections to our ethics laws included legislation that requires lobbyists to disclose all spending on public officials and also limits gifts to politicians to under $25 a day with a maximum of $150 per year. There had been an outcry to give our Ethics Commission subpoena power for years. This was accomplished. There is also a new requirement that those who lobby the executive branch of government register with the Ethics Commission and also a requirement that all elected officials and public employees be given ethics training. Another significant accomplishment of the ethics session was legislation that will stop the practice of pass through pork in the budget. This would make the practice of putting money into an agency’s budget and then using it elsewhere illegal.

  The passage of the so-called double-dipping prohibition is equal to the PAC to PAC ban in ethics reform and political importance. The practice of legislators going on to junior college payrolls after their election had become pervasive over the past few decades. The junior college corruption scandal brought to light the depth of the abuse. Numerous convictions stemmed from this practice. Under the new laws a legislator will not be able to hold another state job or contract. The new law expands the state ban to include not only the junior college system but also four year colleges and state agencies.

  The session also included political payback legislation. Bob Riley used his last days in office to enhance the new Republican control of state government. Riley and the new Republican majority took a page from Machiavelli. The Machiavellian theory is that when you get a king down you make sure you kill him. King Paul Hubbert of the powerful AEA may have been dealt a death blow when the GOP legislature stopped the state from deducting AEA political action dues. This payroll deduction prohibition legislation will not only affect the AEA PAC adversely but also the Alabama State Employees Association PAC.

  The Senate voted lockstep for all of the bills including the dues check off prohibitions. The vote was identically 22 to 13 on all measures. The House was much more independent. There was much more debate and dissension in the lower chamber. The double-dipping bill got a lot of discussion and was closer than in the Senate. The vote on the dues check off ban was very narrowly passed in the House. The vote was 52 to 49. This vote could portend that Speaker Mike Hubbard may have a harder time keeping his troops in line in the House this quadrennium than Pro Tem Del Marsh will in the Senate.

  See you next week.

   About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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