Politics & Government

Ethics bill would ban some campaign donations during law-making session

FRANKFORT — Companies that employ lobbyists could not give campaign donations to legislators while the General Assembly is in session under an ethics bill filed Wednesday.

Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said legislators shouldn't vote on bills while taking money from companies with a financial interest in those bills. Under current ethics law, lobbyists cannot donate to legislators' campaigns at any time, Stein noted.

"At least during the session, the employers and their PACs (political action committees) should be under the same restrictions as their lobbyists," Stein said.

Over the years, several controversies have erupted in Frankfort because companies made campaign donations around the same time they backed legislation.

In 2002, Churchill Downs sent $15,500 in campaign donations to 25 legislators the weekend before the session began and the horse industry lobbied for the right to install slot machines at racetracks. The Legislative Ethics Commission later dismissed a complaint against Churchill Downs, saying no laws had been broken but that the company "fell well short of exercising good judgment." The racetracks did not get their slot machines.

Stein's bill also would prohibit lobbyists from buying food or drink for individual legislators. At present, each lobbyist can spend up to $100 a year on each legislator on an individual basis.

Stein said her bill would not affect the popular Frankfort receptions hosted by lobbyists and their employers for large groups of legislators at which food and drink are served and entertainment sometimes is provided.

For example, on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, announced on the House floor all members were invited to a reception that night at the Frankfort office of Southern Strategy Group, whose lobbyists represent the health care and financial services industries, among others.

"We get plenty of chances to eat and drink on the dime of these folks," Stein said. "Lobbyists are not running Frankfort. But lobbyists probably have a more comfortable chair to sit in than the public."

The Legislative Ethics Commission said 645 companies or groups with 623 lobbyists were active at the legislature in 2009. On average, they have spent an annual $14.6 million lobbying the General Assembly in recent years. That does not include their campaign donations.

Stein's bill also would extend the ethics rules to legislative candidates, not just incumbent lawmakers, and it would authorize the Legislative Ethics Commission to dismiss a complaint if the person who filed it talked about it publicly. Some people have abused the system by filing frivolous ethics complaints right before elections and then announcing the complaints in campaign materials, she said.

Stein said she's simultaneously filing a separate ethics bill that would require legislators' salary and travel expense records to be posted online by the Legislative Research Commission. Currently, those records are accessible only through a Kentucky Open Records Act request, which is an onerous task for the average citizen, she said.

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is chairman of the committee to which Stein's bills likely will be assigned. Thayer said Wednesday he expects to study them in the near future. At least one measure, the posting of legislative finance records online, is similar to a bill he's already sponsoring, he added.

"There are some ideas here worth looking at," Thayer said. "I would like to welcome Senator Stein to the ethics and campaign-finance reform movement. I have been working on this subject for years, and she has not assisted us when she was in the House or since she has joined the Senate."