Kentucky voices

Ky. voices: George Troutman says legislature's stronger ethics code will bolster public trust

April 8, 2014 

George C. Troutman of Louisville is chairman of the Legislative Ethics Commission on which he's served since 1994.

By George C. Troutman

The 2014 Kentucky General Assembly adopted a new law (House Bill 28) strengthening our state's Code of Legislative Ethics for the first time since its adoption in 1993.

With these improvements, Kentucky solidifies its stature as the state with the most effective and comprehensive legislative ethics law in the nation.

Kentucky's ethics law was enacted in 1993, in the wake of the BOPTROT scandal, and has long been viewed as one of the nation's strongest, regulating the conduct of legislators and lobbyists.

For more than 20 years, while many states have experienced serious bribery and corruption scandals, Kentucky's ethics law has helped prevent those kinds of episodes.

This year, the General Assembly strengthened the ethics law in several important areas:

■ During sessions of the General Assembly, legislators and legislative candidates will be prohibited from accepting campaign contributions from political action committees and from businesses or organizations that employ lobbyists.

■ The ethics code now includes a "no cup of coffee" provision, meaning lobbyists and their employers will be prohibited from buying a meal, or even a cup of coffee, for an individual legislator, legislative candidate, or a legislator's or candidate's spouse or child.

■ Lobbyists already are prohibited from giving campaign contributions to legislators and candidates at any time, and the new law prohibits them from raising other people's contributions for legislative campaigns;

■ The new law prohibits lobbyists and their employers from paying for out-of-state travel for legislators.

■ Businesses and organizations that employ lobbyists will be required to report all spending during legislative sessions on advertising that supports or opposes legislation.

Advertising is a growing and expensive part of lobbying, and citizens will be better informed about who is paying for this type of "grass-roots" lobbying.

Kentucky's current ethics law's prohibition on lobbyists making campaign contributions to legislators and candidates is one of the strongest and most effective ethics statutes in the nation. The law draws clear lines between state legislators and the political influence of lobbying interests.

The changes adopted in HB 28 will enhance those boundaries and help our state avoid much of the perception that plagues the U.S. Congress — that special interests' campaign contributions and other spending are influencing legislative actions.

This is a significant step in building public confidence in the integrity of Kentucky's lawmaking process. While we might disagree from time to time about the General Assembly's policy decisions, it's vitally important for the legislative process to work without inappropriate influence from businesses or organizations that have financial stakes in the outcomes.

Look no further than our neighboring states. In recent years, six of the states surrounding Kentucky have seen legislators convicted of charges such as bribery, extortion and mail fraud.

In several states — including Alaska, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — numerous legislators of both parties have gone to prison. Imagine how that undermines the public trust.

By adopting these new ethics law provisions, the Kentucky General Assembly has reinforced its commitment to ethical decision-making. The new law is based on recommendations developed by Legislative Ethics Commission members, former state Rep. Pat Freibert and former Court of Appeals Judge Paul Gudgel.

The commission believes these changes will create a clear bright line between legislators and candidates, and the businesses and organizations that have interests before the legislature.

The advertising reporting requirement will provide significant new information to the public about an increasingly important form of lobbying.

The 2014 General Assembly has made a strong statement, and Kentucky continues to provide an ethical road map for other states and Congress to follow.

George C. Troutman of Louisville is chairman of the Legislative Ethics Commission on which he's served since 1994.

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