BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
The sun was shining outside the state Capitol this morning, but not inside – at least not at the state Ethics Commission meeting.
The watchdog board voted 4-1 to avoid any involvement in efforts to create a No Gifts registry for state lawmakers, a good government, let-the-sunshine-in proposal that would have made it even easier for rank-and-file Oklahomans to know who’s being wooed by special interest goodies and who’s not.
Seven state lawmakers – all ultra-conservative Republicans – signed a letter urging the commission to establish on its web site http://www.ok.gov/oec/ the No Gifts list as “a method for legislators to avoid receiving items of value from lobbyists.”
“As legislators we do not enjoy being listed for receiving gifts which we do not desire or request,” they wrote. “In the past, these gifts have been mailed to legislator’s homes, left at our offices, or placed on the desk [of] legislative assistants even when no one is in the office. These actions force us to spend resources and time tracking down the lobbyists and returning the gifts. In addition, lobbyists sometimes enter reports of across-the-board giving which include our names even though we are not present to accept the gift.
“A no gift list would draw a clear line in the sand by which legislators and lobbyists could establish a firm relationship based on professionalism. It would also start to put an end to the perception that all legislators and lobbyists engage in an inappropriate game of quid-pro-quo.”
The letter was signed by Reps. Jason Murphey of Guthrie, Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow, and Charles Key and Mike Reynolds, both of Oklahoma City, as well as Sens. Randy Brogdon of Owasso, Anthony Sykes of Moore and Bill Brown of Broken Arrow.
In recent months, the Ethics Commission resisted efforts to enact a formal rule creating a No Gifts registry. Today, Commissioner John Raley, a Ponca City attorney and former federal prosecutor, offered a sensible compromise: Create a link on the Ethics Commission’s web site that would connect to a No Gift list created and maintained by the legislators themselves.
But the Capitol’s powers-that-be – the Republican majority leadership in both houses and the lobbyists – don’t want anything that would shine additional light on who’s giving and who’s receiving special interest goodies.
The Ethics Commission in recent years cut the annual amount in freebies that lobbyists can give lawmakers from $300 to $100. That’s still too much. Our lawmakers are among the highest paid in the nation. All have operating funds for their offices. None should take so much as a cup of coffee from any special interests. Dutch treat should be the rule.
But the commission that imposed the tighter standards is no more. We are now living with the decisions of three members appointed by some of the Capitol’s worst defenders of the corporatist status quo: Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, House Speaker Chris Benge and Gov. Brad Henry.
The result is an Ethics Commission that suddenly is less concerned about transparency and openness in government than whether a No Gifts list could be used to bludgeon politically those lawmakers who don’t sign on.
Pardon me if I don’t weep.
What the Ethics Commission did today was to stoke the prairie fire of cynicism about our government and its elected leaders. It blew a golden opportunity to take an easy, inexpensive step toward giving rank-and-file Oklahomans more confidence that decisions at the state Capitol are being made on a level playing field. Instead, the perception is reinforced that well-heeled interests have a lock on the legislative process.
Opposing Raley’s plan were commission Chairwoman Jo Pettigrew [appointed by Henry], herself a former education lobbyist; Tulsa attorney Karen Long [Benge]; Claremore banker Bob McKinney [Coffee], and veteran Commissioner Jim Loy [appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice].
Mark the date: March 12, 2010. The foxes now are officially guarding the hen house.
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer