Panel OKs plan to regulate gifts to lawmakers

By Mary Jo Pitzl – The Republic |  – January 24th, 2014

A free meal outside the Legislature where lobbyists and lawmakers min­gle: acceptable.

A free ticket to a sporting event or concert where similar mingling oc­curs: not so much.

A state Senate panel on Thursday grappled with where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropri­ate efforts to influence legislators as they debated a proposed ban on free sports and entertainment tickets.

Despite misgivings that the legis­lation would further complicate ef­forts to separate right from wrong, the Senate Government and Environ­ment Committee unanimously ap­proved the bill. Senate Bill 1060 would ban lobby­­ists, corporate officers and public bodies from offering free entertain­ment and sports tickets to lawmakers.

Currently, such freebies are legal if they are offered to all 90 members of the Legislature or to all members of a legislative committee. Tickets to individual legislators are banned.

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, sponsored the bill with bipartisan co-signers. The bill comes three years after an independent investigative report into the Fiesta Bowl’s spending identified more than a dozen current and former lawmakers who took free trips and tickets to college football games. Reagan was among those lawmakers, and she testified her bill was motivated by that experience.

She told committee members she doesn’t see any value to the legislative process from attending sporting or entertainment events on someone else’s dime. But there could be exceptions she said, agreeing with Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, that Griffin shouldn’t be blocked from taking a free ticket to a baseball game at Eastern Arizona College’s 125th-anniversary celebration.

But why stop there, asked Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber. Why is that ticket any different from his attendance at an Arizona Diamondbacks game?

“We’re getting a little nitpicky,” Crandell said. It would be better to either ban all gifts or allow all gifts, as long as they are immediately disclosed, he said. Reagan said her preference is for a wide-open gift policy, with strict and immediate disclosure. But she said the state doesn’t have the technology to allow such online disclosure, noting lawmakers still have to file annual financial-disclosure statements on paper.

Lobbyist Barry Aarons, speaking for himself, applauded Reagan for raising the issue. But, he said, if lawmakers are worried about perceptions, it would be simpler to ban all gifts. “If you believe they (freebies) are a corrupting influence on the process, you eliminate it all,” he said. “It won’t change my lobbying.” Besides, it could end what he called a cumbersome quarterly reporting requirement that lobbyists must follow.

The bill has legislators talking, as they weigh public perception of lawmakers being corrupted by lobbyists against what they say is the benefit the state gets from their first-hand experiences at special events.

Senate Majority Whip Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said he doesn’t view the tickets as perks. He recalled attending a production of “Les Misérables” several years ago at the invitation of one of the state’s arts organizations.

“We’re involved in their funding,” he said. “It’s a way to see the impact of our funding. We could make those decisions blindly, or we could make them with knowledge.”

Most lawmakers who voted on SB 1060 Thursday said they would prefer an all-or-nothing approach. Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West, took it further, saying elected officials at all levels of government should adhere to the same set of gift rules, rather than focusing only on the Legislature.

Despite the belief that Reagan’s bill only nibbles at the edges of lawmaker gifts, all seven senators voted “yes” to move the bill along to the full Senate. Several said they reserved the right to change their votes when the issue next surfaces.



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