$15 in free gifts Legislative ethics: Small step on road to true lobbyist reforms

September 29, 1995

THAT'S $15 IS ALL a state legislator can get from a registered lobbyist starting this Sunday. A new law bans any gift to a lawmaker or an official in the executive branch in excess of $15. It is a small step on the road to more sweeping ethics reforms.

Members of the House of Delegates wanted to go further earlier this year. But as usual, the state Senate continued to favor a clubby relationship with lobbyists. Minimal reforms were approved, such as the $15 gift limit. More substantial changes were rejected.

Too bad. Senators had a chance to show the public they are not under the thumb of high-paid lobbyists who too often dominate legislative activities. Instead, they took the low road, refusing to ban free meals and drinks and precious tickets to sports events and celebrity concerts. All they did was slap a reporting requirement on lobbyists. This may have increased the lobbyists' paperwork, but not the practice of buying access and leverage with legislators by showering the senators and delegates with all the meals, drinks and tickets they desire.

At least the $15 gift limit is a start. Surely, senators realized

citizens will continue to demand an end to those free meals and other such methods by which lobbyists entice legislators. Nothing has really changed. For instance, lobbyists for the casino industry continue to wine and dine legislator members of a commission studying the legalization of casinos. Who's in charge -- the lawmakers or the lobbyists?

A few other baby steps that pass for reform take effect Sunday, too. No longer can legislators represent someone before a state agency on contract procurements or controversies regarding regulations. And no longer can ex-legislators immediately put on lobbyist hats: There's a one-year "cooling off" period.

This reluctance to take ethics reforms seriously is short-sighted. The public clamor for separating lobbyists and lawmakers won't end. Senators are asking for more aggravation and contempt from the public by continuing to defend a cozy relationship with lobbyists.

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