BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
Sad, but true: More than two months after Common Cause Oklahoma established its new No Gifts List, only two state lawmakers have signed up, publicly vowing they won’t accept anything of value from lobbyists or others seeking to influence legislative decision-making.
Guthrie Republican Rep. Jason Murphey, who always has refused such favors, was the first to affix his name to the list at www.commoncause.org/OK/NoGifts. He was later joined by the incoming Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Andrew Rice of OKC.
Where is everybody else?
The truth is, the No Gifts List doesn’t set well with many legislators who don’t want attention drawn to the fact they enjoy being wined, dined and otherwise feted by state government’s army of special interest professionals.
Some – not all – lobbyists don’t like the list, either. They prefer the system just the way it is – showering meals, golf outings, ballgames and trinkets on elected officials as a means to ensure access to key decision-makers.
It gives lobbyists who all but live in the Capitol rotunda during the February-May legislative sessions [and frequent election-year fundraisers, as well] a decided advantage in the legislative decision-making process over rank-and-file Oklahomans who might show up for an hour, once in their lives, with a problem they want their elected representative to help solve.
There is no excuse for Oklahoma lawmakers – among the highest paid in the nation [around $50,000 in salary and benefits annually] – to accept anything from anyone. If they want to dine or attend an NBA game with a lobbyist, it should be Dutch treat. Period.
State Ethics Commission rules prohibit each lobbyist from giving more than $100 a year in gifts to each legislator. At first blush, it might not seem like much, but do the math: There are 101 state House members and 48 state senators. There are about 400 lobbyists and 700 lobbyist-employers [companies, groups, etc. that hire lobbyists] registered with the state.
With thousands of special interest dollars greasing the wheels of the legislative process, it’s easy to see why many Oklahomans are so cynical about government in general and the Legislature specifically – convinced that lawmakers and special interests all-too-often conspire on cozy deals that benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the Average Joe.
The $100 annual limit took effect in July 2008, imposed by state ethics commissioners who voted to reduce the previous $300 limit despite objections from some lobbyists who contend full disclosure of gifts is sufficient to protect the public’s interest.
The new limit reduced overall gift giving the first year, but the numbers are climbing again – up more than $12,000 in the first six months this year [about $85,000], when compared to the same period in 2009 [more than $72,000].
What hasn’t been noted, however, is that 31 legislators [see list below] received gifts exceeding the $100 limit last year – 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
In some cases, it appears the rules were broken when lobbyists sought to exploit what they thought was a loophole – that they could spend up to $100 on a spouse or family member, as well, without it counting against a legislator’s limit. They can’t.
Despite the apparent violations, there’s nothing to indicate the Ethics Commission has the means, much less the will, to impose sanctions. The Legislature never wanted the commission in the first place and it’s always treated it like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, all but starving it to death financially. The commission is so budget-poor it’s been forced in the past to borrow paper from other agencies – and it certainly cannot afford to take on any serious prosecutions.
About all it can do at this point is slap offenders on the wrist. But it’s not even likely to do that. The three newest members – appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tem – comprise a majority on the five-member board and they’ve joined forces to de-fang what little teeth the commission bared in the past [reducing the gift limit from $300 to $100 annually, for example].
It’s cliché but true: the fox is guarding the henhouse when it comes to campaign finance and lobbying in Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, in the semi-annual lobbying reports filed last month, no one appears to have exceeded the gift limit in 2010 – so far. But as well-heeled special interests work overtime to protect their share of limited state funds, it’s never been more important to watch who’s getting what from whom.
What would be best, of course, is to end the wining and dining altogether. The Ethics Commission, though, doesn’t seem inclined to tackle the issue again. And the Legislature doesn’t reconvene until next year.
In the meantime, ask your senator and representative – as well as candidates for legislative offices in your districts – to add their names to the Common Cause list. It’s an important step toward leveling the playing field.
2009 Gifts From Lobbyists/Lobbyist Employers Totaling More Than $100
Legislator, Amount, Lobbyist/Lobbyist Employer
Sen. Cliff Aldridge, R-Midwest City, $200.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. John Auffet, D-Stilwell, $200.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Sen. Cliff Branan, R-OKC, $200.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, $212.63, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, $132.88, Tarrant Regional Water District
Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, $111.00, AEP/PSO
Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, $101.91, Cooperative Council for OK School Administrators
Rep. Samson Buck, D-Ardmore, $163.74, National Rifle Assn
Senate President Glenn Coffee, R-OKC, $335.69, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, $107.02, Oklahoma Restaurant Assn
Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, $110.57, Cooperative Council for OK School Administrators
Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, $224.48, National Rifle Assn
Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Terry Harrison, D-McAlester, $135.02, National Rifle Assn
Rep. Shane Jett, R-Tecumseh, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, $214.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, $106.70, State School Boards Assn
Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, $200.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, $107.52, Chickasaw Nation
Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman, $110.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, $183.20, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Wade Rousselot, D-Wagoner, $124.85, OG&E Energy Corp
Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, $125.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, $131.50, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Sen. Joe Sweeden, D-Pawhuska, $105.63, Roberts Ranch of Okla LLC
Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Mike Thompson, R-OKC, $135.87, OK General Contractors
Rep. Mike Thompson, R-OKC, $129.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, $160.00, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, $100.86, Chickasaw Nation
Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Purcy Walker, D-Elk City, $192.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, $196.82, AT&T Inc. & its subsidiaries
Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, $123.49, National Rifle Assn
Source: Reports on file with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission