Archive for Monday, January 29, 2001

Stricter state ethics laws leave bitter aftertaste

Lawmakers fret over meals with lobbyists, other gifts

January 29, 2001


— To eat or not to eat. For legislators, that has become the question.

Changes in state ethics laws approved in the 2000 session are giving legislators heartburn about the reporting of meals, snacks and other small gifts.

State employees can't accept gifts from individuals or companies with a special interest in their agencies. Meals are prohibited, but snacks are not.

The law is less strict for legislators, who can accept up to $40 in gifts a year from a single special interest. For lawmakers, that limit doesn't apply to meals, snacks, drinks and tickets to entertainment events.

But lobbyists must report to the secretary of state's office when and which legislators get their small gifts, and how much those gifts are worth.

For a state worker, what's the difference between a meal and a snack at a reception? Count the number of chairs: If there aren't enough for everyone, they're snacks.

Is a salad a meal? Can people skip taking a plate for themselves but nibble off a spouse's?

Coffee mugs, pocket calendars, pens and even toothbrushes are sources of consternation when legislators know their names will end up on a lobbyist's list for receiving gifts they never wanted.

The House Ethics and Elections Committee already has started talking about revising the law, and it could reopen its discussions this week.

Carol Williams, executive director of the state Governmental Ethics Commission, charged with enforcing the gift laws, admits the restrictions are not perfect.

The commission recently issued a memo stating that gifts worth less than $10 won't be considered gifts if all lawmakers receive them. But they still must be reported.

Before the changes, lobbyists had to report only total spending in six general categories. Last year Gov. Bill Graves proposed greater disclosure, for which some lawmakers had been pushing for years.

Graves also was crucial in the passage of a gift ban for government employees.

"I'm pretty pleased that we've made some progress in trying to do a better job of being accountable and open in the way we do business here in Topeka," he said. "My intention has never been to err so far that it becomes impractical or something that can't be administered."

But many legislators do view the new law as impractical.

House Speaker Kent Glasscock, R-Manhattan, said ethics laws need to make sense, provide guidelines for legislators and not be so strict that they become unworkable.

Glasscock has a staff that can refuse trinkets brought to his office. But most legislators have to spend their own time trying to return unwanted gifts.

"We're not going to make any change that will make the system any less honest or ethical," Glasscock said.

Lobbying laws are designed to give Kansans information about who is trying to influence the Legislature. But many lawmakers see the gifts they receive as more of a collective nuisance.

Rep. Tony Powell, chairman of the House committee, said its members want to simplify the law for everyone affected by it. He said the goal is to make it easier for lobbyists to file accurate reports and for the ethics commission to enforce the law.

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