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Alabama Gets Serious about Ethics and Lobbying Reform

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One isn’t giving away state secrets to note that Alabama has historically been regarded as the political Wild West when it came to campaign finance, lobbying and ethics reform. Recent high profile criminal indictments and guilty pleas involving legislators and lobbyists alike have certainly helped solidify that reputation. Now, with a press announcement giving nod to Alabama’s — shall we say — checkered penal past, Alabama Governor Bob Riley can claim triumph in transitioning Alabama from having “some of the weakest ethics and public corruption laws in the country to some of the strongest.”

Earlier this month, pursuant to powers afforded by the Constitution of Alabama, the governor called the Alabama Legislature into Extraordinary Session to provide him with comprehensive Political Law reform. On December 16th, the Legislature adjourned having provided Governor Riley with the legislation he was seeking. In a photo op on December 20, surrounded by Boy Scouts whose stern little faces showed how serious their Governor is about corruption reform, Governor Riley signed seven separate pieces of legislation including provisions “to ban PAC-to-PAC transfers, put the first-ever limits on what lobbyists and those who hire lobbyists can spend on public officials, grant the Alabama Ethics Commission subpoena power, ban pass-through pork spending and double dipping  by legislators, end taxpayer funding of political activity for special interest groups, and require lobbyists who lobby the executive branch to register and file disclosures.”

The last of these reforms, requiring lobbyists who lobby the executive branch in search of awards and state contracts to register and file disclosures, certainly makes sense and promotes transparency. It also, as many sister states have come to learn, comes with unintended consequences and uncertainty. For example, under Alabama law, “Lobbying” is now defined  to include “the practice of promoting, opposing, or in any manner influencing or attempting to influence the enactment, promulgation, modification, or deletion or regulations before any regulatory body.” The scope of these new regulations will need to be considered carefully and, unfortunately, tends to require some degree of “regulatory definition by enforcement” over time.

Additionally, the provision pertaining to the end of “taxpayer funding of political activity for special interest groups” — press speak for forbidding unions and public agencies from using payroll deductions to fund political activity — was a special Christmas gift from a Republican Governor and a newly Republican State Legislature to the state’s teachers unions that did not go unnoticed by them. As reported by the Gadsden Times, the Alabama Education Association has termed the legislation as “draconian” and has vowed to fight the measure.

Overall, despite some loose ends and wrinkles that will have to shake out over time, one must tip their hat to Governor Riley and the State of Alabama for implementing some reforms that were long overdue.