‘Abramoff-itis’ prompts state lawmakers to revamp lobbying laws | VailDaily.com

‘Abramoff-itis’ prompts state lawmakers to revamp lobbying laws

State capitols across America have been stricken by what some are calling “Jack Abramoff-itis” – a sudden, urgent desire to tighten the rules on lobbying.The burgeoning scandal involving the Washington super-lobbyist has produced ethics legislation in many states, or at least given greater momentum to efforts that were under way before Abramoff agreed to cooperate in an investigation into influence-pedding on Capitol Hill.Oklahoma lawmakers want pharmaceutical companies to report how much they spend on lobbying. Florida has a new law prohibiting lobbyists from giving gifts, including food and drinks, to lawmakers.Pennsylvania – which does not have a lobbyist-disclosure law, and has not had one since it was overturned by the state’s high court in 2002 – is considering new reporting requirements. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban lobbyist gift-giving before “the next Jack Abramoff arrives.””The scandal at the congressional level has received so much publicity, it does permeate down to the state legislative level,” said Peggy Kerns, executive director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. “Legislators will take a look at where their laws may be vulnerable – and what is the public’s expectation of them.”Some lobbyists worry that lawmakers will go too far.”A lot of this an overblown reaction to the Jack Abramoff case – everybody’s trying to blame all lobbyists for the corruption of one man,” said Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists in Washington. “Not everybody in lobbying is a Jack Abramoff – we don’t lie, cheat and steal. So let’s not blame the entire profession for the action of one man who would have broken those laws anyway.In Colorado, Gov. Bill Owens has indicated he might support legislation to ban elected officials from taking cash gifts and in-kind donations like office space and mailings. A year ago, Owens vetoed a similar measure.New York state may tighten restrictions so a lobbyist could give only $75 worth of gifts to an official during an entire year – down from $75 per item or event.Many lawmakers are eager to ease public mistrust.”More access and more transparency is a better way of doing business,” said Democratic state Sen. Kate Kelly of Idaho, sponsor of a bill to revamp lobbying rules that have been virtually unchanged since they were passed by the voters in 1974.In some cases, the ethics proposals were prompted largely by local scandals.Last week, Tennessee, where five current or former lawmakers have been charged in an FBI bribery sting, banned lobbyists from making campaign contributions. In Connecticut, where former Gov. John Rowland was sent to prison last year for accepting home improvements, free vacations and other favors, passed one of the nation’s strictest campaign finance laws in December.Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to ethics violations last year over unreported golf outings, has proposed banning gifts to state officials from lobbyists seeking to influence state contracts. And lobbying and campaign reforms are under consideration in North Carolina in the wake of an ethics furor involving a member of the lottery commission.But the Abramoff investigation – and his guilty plea to federal charges stemming from his lobbying practices – have heightened the public’s interest in reform, said Bob Phillips, director of the clean-government group Common Cause in Raleigh, N.C.”It’s a greater challenge when there isn’t an investigation or something in the news driving the issue. We’re all opportunists, and this is a great opportunity,” he said.On Capitol Hill, Republicans are circulating election-year reform legislation. Among other things, Senators who sip lobbyists’ wine or savor their hors d’oeuvres might soon have to report it, and disclose the cost on their official government Web site.Lobbyists are fighting back against the new restrictions.In Florida, they have sued to block enforcement of a new law prohibiting them from giving gifts to lawmakers. They say the measure violates their free-speech rights. Lobbyists are threatening a legal challenge in Connecticut as well.Some lobbyists say they are outraged by the Abramoff scandal, too, and complain it has given their profession a bad name.”I’d like to neuter Jack Abramoff and take him out of the gene pool so he can’t reproduce,” said Stan Boyd, a lobbyist for Idaho’s cattle, sheep and elk industries.Vail, Colorado

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