Washington scandal likely to spur legislative noise

Saturday, January 21st 2006, 8:21 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Ethics legislation is expected to create a lot of noise, if nothing else, during the upcoming Oklahoma Legislature.

Sponsors say the Washington corruption scandal has heightened the public's interest in the conduct of public officials and how they are influenced by lobbyists and campaign contributions.

"If you look at the ethics bills that have been filed in the Legislature, I think it is a statement in itself," said Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, new Democratic leader of the House.

Morgan said coffee shops are abuzz over the dealings of once powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in Washington.

"They are surprised that one individual could have that much power. They are asking how does one guy get that much stroke who is not an elected official," Morgan said.

Sponsors suggest their ethics legislation could help prevent an Abramoff scandal on a smaller scale in Oklahoma, whose ethics laws are not highly rated by national ethics organizations.

The ethics bills are among more than 2,000 House and Senate measures filed by last week's filing deadline. Also, there are almost 1,300 carry-over bills from the 2005 session.

Major issues lawmakers will be dealing with include health care, lawsuit reform and funding for prisons, schools and highways.

Rep. John Trebilcock, R-Broken Arrow, is trying again to win approval of a bill require to a cooling off period of two years before House or Senate members can become lobbyists.

Trebilcock said a lawmaker who is offered a lucrative lobbying contract could be tempted to vote against his district's best interests. "We need a system where temptation doesn't exist," he said.

Congress has a one-year ban on lobbying activity by former members that is expected to be extended, especially considering the campaign financing scandal.

"Here is Oklahoma, we haven't had the political courage to enact any ban," Trebilcock said. "Most Oklahomans would be surprised that there are more ethics in Washington than at their state Capitol."

The subject of campaign contributions is always a touchy one in an election year, but Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, says he will again pursue a bill to prohibit political contributions to lawmakers while the Legislature is in session.

The measure would also bar most political action committees from raising funds during the session. Exceptions would be made for the Republican and Democratic parties.

Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, will sponsor the bill in the Senate.

Lamons said the legislation is reasonable and still gives lawmakers eight out of 12 months to fill their campaign coffers.

"I raise campaign funds like everyone else, but I don't raise money during the session," he said.

Lamons said his bill is patterned after a Texas law that is more restrictive. In Texas, lawmakers cannot accept contributions for 30 days before the session, during the session and for 30 days after the session.

Two other ethics-related measures filed by Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City, deal with mail privileges and campaign advertising.

Lindley said the House members are allowed to send up to 100 letters a day, or 500 at the end of the week, by using a postage meter.

He said it is a system ripe for abuse by politicians seeking to send out purely political material to constituents.

As currently written, Lindley's bill would require lawmakers to post on the House Web site any mailing that goes to more than 25 people. He said he will continue to work on the measure.

He said members of the Republican majority will say Democrats have made mass mailings in previous years, "but I don't care who has done it in the past. It is wrong."

He said he has calculated that it could cost taxpayers $1 million if all 101 House members exercised the maximum amount of mailings available to them.

Filed essentially as a shell bill, Lindley said, is a measure that will seek to attack the problem of campaign advertising distorting the voting records of legislative incumbents.

A new group of ethics rules has been adopted by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission and can be rejected by the Legislature this year.

One proposed rule reduces from $300 to $100 the aggregate amount of gifts state workers can receive from lobbyists.

Under the proposal, lobbyists would be required to report any gift over $25. The commission did not change the limitations as they applied to elected officials.