Arizonans want legislators to reject gifts
Published: August 11, 2011 at 7:02 am
Arizonans responding to an open invitation from one of the state’s legislative leaders overwhelmingly think lawmakers should reject all gifts, no matter how small.
But House Speaker Andy Tobin said their expectations are unrealistic, even as he pushes ahead with proposed changes to the state’s financial-disclosure laws in the wake of the Fiesta Bowl scandal.
“They don’t want lawmakers to take a lunch,” said Tobin, R-Paulden. “That’s silly.”
He might consider it silly, but most of the 58 people who e-mailed the House speaker as of late July about disclosure by public officials see it differently.
“Anything more than a toothpick is forbidden,” Art Cote of Peoria wrote after Tobin in May asked the public to send him ideas on what they want to know about the gifts lawmakers receive. “No freebies, no meals, no trips, no tickets.”
The Republic obtained the e-mails through a request under Arizona’s public-records law.
Mike Zell, a retired lieutenant with the state Department of Public Safety, suggested lawmakers follow the same rules he had to observe while a state employee.
“Unless the trip, dinner, vacation or any other bribe is available to all citizens, it is not available or legal for a duly elected official of this state to accept either,” he wrote.
There was little sympathy for lawmakers, among whom a common complaint is the lack of state money for travel to conferences or other fact-finding missions.
Last week, at least 30 Arizona lawmakers attended the American Legislative Exchange Council conference in New Orleans, with corporate-supplied scholarships paying for many of them. Organizers estimated each scholarship is worth $1,900.
Carolyn Grady, who signed as a “former Republican,” reflected the views of many who wrote Tobin when she said lawmakers should be wary of anyone bearing gifts.
“We know when companies or lobbyists send you on trips or buy you meals or give you anything, it’s not because you are a nice person,” she wrote. “They WANT something from you.”
Tobin said he gets it — there’s deep distrust of lawmakers and lots of suspicion of the motivation behind anything that’s offered to them.
“Obviously, you need to disclose more so there’s more sunshine,” Tobin said.
But an absolute ban on gifts isn’t feasible, he said, especially when the official legislative salary is only $24,000 a year, many lawmakers are not independently wealthy and there is no money to send them to educational conferences and events.
He said he favors changing the state’s disclosure laws to require more-frequent reporting.
Currently, elected officials from the governor down must file personal financial-disclosure reports each January that cover the previous year. The disclosure rule also applies to anyone appointed to fill out the term of an elected office, as well as anyone running for office.
That means the public often doesn’t get a look at an official’s gifts, income or other financial data until a year after the fact, Tobin said.
He said he intends to introduce a bill in January 2012 to expand the reporting requirements. Ideas range from details on who paid for any gift, why a lawmaker took a particular gift and whether there was legislation pending that concerned the interests of the gift giver.
None of those items is currently required.
Tobin is also exploring electronic filing. The disclosure reports, which are filed manually, only recently were made available online by the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
Tobin filed one of the more expansive disclosure forms when it came to gifts from the Fiesta Bowl, which is now trying to get lawmakers to reimburse the bowl for its costs because the gifts could imperil the bowl’s tax-free status.
Although many of those who wrote Tobin said there should be stiff penalties for not disclosing gifts, Tobin’s focus is more on transparency and wider disclosure.
Already, anyone found to have knowingly omitted information from a disclosure form is subject to a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
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