By Jonathan J. Cooper, Cronkite News Service
Lobbyists don't buy legislators fancy dinners or send them on expensive trips out of the kindness of their hearts, a state lawmaker says. Those gifts help them get access to those deciding issues important to the interests lobbyists represent.
Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, has introduced legislation to scale back meals, trips and other gifts lobbyists now legally give to lawmakers - and the gifts lawmakers may accept from lobbyists. Doing so, he said, would help cut back on the power some lobbyists wield around the State Captiol.
"Lobbyists are probably the most influential aspect in policy," Ableser said.
HB 2217, which has yet to be heard in committee, would ban gifts of meals worth $25 or more and trips lacking an educational purpose. It would allow lobbyists to continue giving flowers, plaques, cards and trinkets such pens and T-shirts.
Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a group that educates voters and aims to remove barriers to civic participation, said she supports the idea behind Ableser's bill because lobbyists giving gifts expect something in return.
"Anything that can help separate the big-money special interests from our legislators we're supportive of," Brown said.
Peggy Kerns, a former Colorado lawmaker and director of the Ethics Center at the National Council of State Legislatures, said it's very rare for lawmakers and lobbyists to exchange votes for trips and meals. But office holders have to make sure they don't damage their relationship with the public by creating an appearance of impropriety, she said.
"There is a very distinct ethical standard that public servants have to be above reproach, and there should be no question about their actions," Kerns said. "If the public would think there could be an appearance of a quid pro quo, then the lawmaker should probably avoid the trip."
Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee have recently passed laws restricting gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, Kerns said.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, didn't immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on Ableser's bill.
Arizona law already requires lobbyists to report their gifts to legislators and state employees but doesn't restrict what they can give.
The Secretary of State's Web site maintains a database of the reports, which identify the lobbyist who gave the gift, the client represented and the value but don't list type of gift or the recipient if the value is less than $20.
Dave Wenhold, president of the Washington-based American League of Lobbyists and co-founder of Miller Wenhold Capitol Strategies, said laws like the one Ableser is proposing unfairly target registered lobbyists. Not everyone who tries to sway a lawmaker's vote is a registered lobbyist, he said.
He also said it is hypocritical for lawmakers to blame lobbyists for influence peddling.
"At the end of the day lobbyists aren't the ones that vote," Wenhold said. "This is a shift of responsibility."
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