Lawmakers: Don’t reject this gift (ban)

Given the ethics scandals that have plagued Indiana lawmakers in recent years, a bill to ban all lobbyists’ gifts sounds like a solid, common-sense proposal.

But like a lot of reasonable ideas, this one will probably never see the light of day.

On the first day of the General Assembly’s 2017 session, Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, introduced the bill, which would make it illegal for Indiana lawmakers to accept a gift from a lobbyist. It would ban all gifts from lobbyists or their employers, including food and drink, to individual legislators and their families. Ten states have such rules, under what’s known as “no-cup-of-coffee” laws.

Senate Bill 289 also would require lobbyists to log all communications between themselves and legislators.

Delph calls his bill “the right thing to do” and explains that “When people give you gifts, there’s a reason behind it. Those offers go away as soon as you leave the Legislature.”

Kentucky passed its “no-cup-of-coffee” law in 2014, despite having one of the most restrictive ethics laws among the states. The legislator pushing for the additional measure explained that such legislation is important “in today’s culture.”

“Our focus is to make the legislative body function without the belief or suspicion that we are bought and paid for — because we are NOT,” he said, adding, “In practice, no one bought anyone a cup of coffee anyway.”

Under current Indiana law, only gifts of $50 or more in a single day have to be reported, and food, drink and entertainment are exempted. Ethics reforms that passed a few years ago — in response to scandals — focus on disclosure, rather than prohibition.

In a comment after those reforms passed, we called them a step in the right direction but noted that there was more work to be done. Delph’s bill would further that cause.

For those who question whether gift bans are necessary, consider the words of the late Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist who helped reshape and strengthen state legislatures across the country and used standards of appearance, fairness and responsibility to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate legislative behavior. “There can be no question as to the propriety of lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. It is improper … because it gives people an impression of being so,” he wrote.

Delph’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, where bills go to die. It’s hardly surprising that legislators aren’t thrilled about the bill, which has no co-sponsors.

Senate Bill 289 is a much-needed attempt at ethics reform, and if you believe it should be approved, ask your state representative or state senator where he or she stands on the matter.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to [email protected].