Debate continues on free tickets for lawmakers - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Debate continues on free tickets for lawmakers

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Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2014 5:45 pm | Updated: 8:59 am, Fri Jan 24, 2014.

State lawmakers took the first steps Thursday to keep them from accepting free tickets from lobbyists to sporting events and concerts.

But some of the votes for SB 1060 by members of the Senate Committee on Government and Environment were tentative at best, and several legislators suggested they might change their minds when the measure reaches the full Senate.

The legislation would narrow the scope of existing laws that permit lawmakers to accept things like meals, travel and entertainment, subject only to reporting requirements. If approved, lobbyist-paid entertainment of all types would be off limits and legislators who wanted to go to events would have to pave their own way.

Thursday's 7-0 vote came amid questions and doubts expressed by some legislators of what would and would not be allowed. Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said it was “offensive” to think that lawmakers would decide how to vote on issues based on gifts from lobbyists and not evidence presented.

While long-time lobbyist Barry Aarons testified in favor of the measure, he also took shots at the whole concept.

He questioned whether the proposal was addressing a real problem or simply lawmakers caving to “media-fueled public pressure” that singled out free sports tickets as a problem following a scandal involving the Fiesta Bowl. Aarons, who happens to sit on the Fiesta Bowl committee, said he doubts that free tickets, which would be outlawed, are any more of a “corruptive influence” on the lawmaking process than a $100 steak dinner paid for by a lobbyist, which would still be permitted.

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, conceded the point.

She said her preference would be to let legislators accept pretty much whatever they want, subject to having to disclose the gift online within days, so the public can see the interaction between their lawmakers and the lobbyists trying to influence them. Reagan said even full and immediate disclosure is not the answer to everything.

“There is no benefit to the public for us going to a sporting event or a rock concert,” she said.

Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said she's not so sure. Griffin said she attended the 125th anniversary celebration of Eastern Arizona College last year.

“There was a ball game afterwards,” she said. “Does this require me to pay the $8 admission for that game?”

The consensus seemed to be yes, with the belief that the EAC event was on the same scale as accepting free tickets from the University of Arizona to watch the Wildcats play. That because both EAC and UA have lobbyists representing them at the Capitol.

Aarons was the only lobbyist to testify on the proposal, which now heads to the Senate floor for debate.

He said the Fiesta Bowl scandal “made sports tickets evil” in the minds of the public. That scandal involved not only hidden campaign contributions but also legislators accepting free tickets and then not reporting them as gifts. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said he could not prosecute anyone over that failure to disclose the freebies because the law appears to require that a legislator knowingly ignore the reporting mandate.

Aarons, the only lobbyist to testify about the proposal, said the public fallout from that event “made sports tickets evil.” But he said it would be wrong for lawmakers to focus their attention only on them.

“This is about the basic question: Are gratuities of any type corruptive influence on the process?” he testified. “If you believe they are a corruptive influence on the process, and you are subject to being corrupted by accepting them, then you eliminate it all.”

Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, agreed. She said there are probably more opportunities for egregious spending on legislators than sports tickets. Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, while voting for the measure Thursday, suggested he may change his mind when it goes to the full Senate and instead hold out for a more comprehensive ban.

Reagan said her study of other legislatures suggests a flat-out ban — right down to not being able to accept even a free cup of coffee — is not practical.

“It pushed a lot of stuff underground,” she said. By contrast, Reagan said she sees no value to the public of having their legislators taken to sporting events and concerts.

Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West, also agreed to go along with the plan for the time being, but Burges said if lawmakers are going to place new limits on themselves, those same limits should be placed on all other elected state and local officials.

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