Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ethics Reform

Murphey Legislative Update
28 May 2007

The House of Representatives recently passed major legislation amending the ethics rules that govern the fundraising conduct of the campaigns of Oklahoma politicians. These reforms include a new limitation on lobbyists' influence over elected officials. These ethics reforms were contained in House Bill 2210, sponsored by Lance Cargill, Speaker of the House.

Ethics reform is an issue about which I feel strongly. As an observer and participant in the political process, I have seen first hand how some ethics abuses are perpetrated. As a State Representative, I have also noticed how much influence lobbyists have over the legislative process. When I sought election to this office, I campaigned on a platform of ethics reform.

I am a strong defender of the rights of citizens to contribute to the candidate who reflects their point of view. I feel this is the way the average person can counter the tremendous influence lobbyists and special interests exert over elected officials. I am opposed to any attempt to lower the limit on the amount of money that a person can give a candidate for office. However, with the right to contribute to candidates must come the requirement of full disclosure. It is only fair that those who try and influence elections be held accountable if their message is dishonest. In order for people to be held accountable, it is necessary that their identity is disclosed.

An important reform in House Bill 2210 took a step towards requiring more disclosure by requiring certain third party groups to be subject to reporting standards similar to the groups that are in direct support of candidates.

Another reform in House Bill 2210 is the placement of a ban on political contributions inside the capitol building. It is at the capitol where the special interests work to swing the support of officials to their point of view. The average person does not have anywhere near this kind of access to their legislators. At the very least, this prohibition helps place citizens on a more even footing with professional special interests groups. I think this is just a common sense step to ethics reform.

The ethics reform bill also includes a ban on honorarium for lawmakers. I remember how shocked I was to learn that money is sent to lawmakers in the form of honorarium from those benefiting from state appropriations. I believe this is a practice that few in the general public are aware of. I am pleased to say that in addition to returning all political contributions from lobbyists and the pacs that employ lobbyists, I have also maintained a policy of returning all honorarium to the senders.

Not included in House Bill 2210 were earlier proposals by Speaker Cargill that would require monthly reports from candidates for office and greater application of the ethics rules to those who hold office at county level. It is my belief that these reforms did not occur due to the significant costs that would be imposed on the ethics commission, which is the board responsible for enforcement of ethics rules.

I do think there are additional reforms that should occur with our ethics rules. One of the foremost concerns I have is the lack of ability of the ethics commission to provide proper enforcement of the rules. If we are to be serious about enforcing ethics rules, we must take an important step by codifying these rules into law. Until we are willing to do this, the ethics enforcement process is rather ineffective.

It is my personal belief that the in the past the legislature has traditionally underfunded the ethics commission and kept the rules out of law as a way of insuring there would be few teeth in the enforcement process.

I also have some concerns with the way the bill was presented to the legislature. We were unable to get a copy of this bill until approximately 30 minutes before the vote was to occur. In those 30 minutes, I was able to verify that the ethics reforms listed above were in fact in the bill. However, this is far from the preferable process by which important legislation should be considered. Reforming the legislative process to control the last minute consideration of major legislation initiatives should be a priority of the legislature.

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