Riley is on track with accountability

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 2, 2004

This time around, the reforms being pushed by Gov. Bob Riley are ones that the Alabama people should love, while only the professional political types should object. But if you’re standing anywhere near a politician who won’t vote for these reforms, check your wallet, your piggy bank, your safe deposit box — and your ethical compass as well. It’s difficult to be honest and still oppose these reforms.

Gov. Riley on Monday outlined the first four of what is expected to be a host of “good government” reforms. The first one is so simple, and aimed at such an obvious source of corruption, that lawmakers should be downright embarrassed to oppose it.

Under current law, lobbyists can spend up to $91,000 each year on entertainment and meals for a single public official, without reporting it to anybody. There is no limit on the number of officials they can wine and dine, in total secret, in such opulent fashion.

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For an official with weak morals, that’s plenty enough money to influence decision-making.

Gov. Riley proposes, sensibly enough, to require full public disclosure of every dime spent by lobbyists for the benefit of public officials. Some reformers might go farther and put a cap on how much each official could accept from lobbyists, but this proposal is a start.

Even though it’s trite to say that sunlight is the best disinfectant, the maxim is no less true. Requiring full disclosure of these kinds of influence-peddling can make lawmakers think twice before prostituting their consciences for the sake of some lavish steak dinners and a few sun-soaked junkets.

The second and third proposals also are designed to increase the amount of sunlight on Goat Hill. For instance, the governor would ban transfers made from one political action committee to another. PAC-to-PAC transfers are a favorite method by which influence-peddlers and lawmakers hide the sources of campaign cash.

When Donor A gives to PAC B to give to PAC C, while PAC Q and PAC Z also are giving to PAC C, government watchdogs have an almost impossible job determining who originated the money that PAC C eventually contributes to Candidate X. But you can be sure that somebody tells Candidate X the straight scoop.

That way, Candidate X can become beholden to a big-money donor without anybody else having a clue of the connection.

Gov. Riley would ban this practice. He also would require that anybody who seeks to influence the executive branch register with the state’s Ethics Commission. Current law requires such registration for those who lobby the Legislature, but not for those who try to buttonhole the governor or his aides.

Finally, the governor will ask the Legislature to formally put into law his executive order banning “pass-through pork,” which is the method through which lawmakers traditionally have secured funding for local projects without an explicit appropriation in any law.

By banning this kind of pork, Gov. Riley hopes not just to increase the flow of sunlight yet again, but also to save taxpayers millions of dollars.

The governor is right on target, and his proposals merit swift passage.