Ethics bills don’t address real problem

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gov. Bob Riley is getting lots of good press these days about the work being done by the Alabama legislature in the special session he called for ethics reform.

Riley is touting the package of bills being considered as the nation’s strongest. He promises they will “clean up the corruption in Montgomery” once and for all.

To be certain, the bills are ambitious. They call for:

• full disclosure of spending by lobbyists on all public officials and public employees;

• an end to unlimited gift-giving by lobbyists and others to public officials and public employees;

• a ban on pass-through pork spending;

• subpoena power for the Alabama Ethics Commission;

• the outlawing of all transfers between political action committees;

• the end of “double dipping” by legislators;

• mandatory ethics training for elected officials and public employees at all levels of government; and

• creation of an online, searchable database of lobbyists’ disclosure reports so citizens can see who is trying to influence their elected leaders and how.

But there’s a huge thing the bills don’t touch, and that is campaign contributions. Alabama sets no limits on campaign contributions from individuals or political action committees. The only limits apply to contributions from corporations ($500 limit). That law can be easily skirted by passing the contributions through PACs.

Riley doesn’t want to talk about further limits and in fact has said he’d do away with the current $500 limit. The governor’s view is that restricting political cash squeezes “commoners” out of the process, delivering government positions to those wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns.

Perhaps. So why not even the playing field by limiting both the amounts that can be contributed to campaigns and the amounts that can be spent on a campaign?

When you boil it down to facts, what’s more corrupting: a fancy dinner or a hefty campaign contribution?

If the ethics package passes as proposed by the governor, a lobbyist couldn’t buy a legislator more than four $25 lunches in a calendar year. But that same lobbyist could give as much money as he wanted to a candidate’s re-election campaign.

Think about that, and you decide if legislators are sweeping corruption out of the Capitol. We don’t think so.