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Lewis proposes strict lobbying reform; Ableser accuses senator of copying his plan

Lewis proposes strict lobbying reform;  Ableser accuses senator of copying his planSen. Jerry Lewis, the Mesa Republican who ran on a platform of transparency and lobbying reform during the recall election last year, on Oct. 3 unveiled a proposal to tighten the reporting requirements for legislators and lobbyists and make it easier for the public to find out how the two groups interact.

Lewis said the proposal has the backing of Senate President Steve Pierce and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who investigated the Fiesta Bowl scandal, where public officials received free tickets and took free trips without properly disclosing them.

He added that the Secretary of State’s Office, which is expected to oversee the proposal’s implementation assuming it is enacted, is also on board.

Lewis’ proposal will require lobbyists and lawmakers to report in “real time” a meal, ticket or any other event that is paid by a lobbyist benefiting a legislator. The Republican senator said he’ll work to find consensus on his legislation, which he plans to introduce next year.

Lewis, who beat former Senate President Russell Pearce in a historic recall election last November, is running for re-election.

This time, he’s facing Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, in a Democratic- leaning district that includes parts of Mesa and Tempe. Many consider the race to be a tossup.

Lewis’ proposal seeks to establish an online database that is envisioned to provide up-to-date tracking of expenditures by lobbyists and to allow the public to more easily search their disclosures.

Lawmakers and lobbyists would use the website to report expenses that require disclosure under state laws.

Also under the proposal, lawmakers must disclose any event and the lobbyist they met, while lobbyists must disclose the legislator and the client they represent.

Lewis isn’t inclined to include a penalty for those who fail to disclose expenditures, confident that the dual reporting requirement by lobbyists and legislators on the same spending is sufficient deterrent against non-compliance.

“The nice thing about this is it’s a self-policing deal, and the voters ultimately have the say in whether they want their legislator to represent them or not,” he said.

The proposal also falls short of what some want — a complete ban on gifts.

Last year, Montgomery wrapped up an eight-month investigation into the Fiesta Bowl scandal and concluded that bad legal advice and confusing and conflicting lobbying statutes allowed 16 current and former lawmakers who accepted football tickets and other gifts from the Fiesta Bowl to avoid criminal charges.

The investigation looked into the activities of 28 lawmakers, four other elected officials, a lobbying firm and a lobbyist. Montgomery said current laws created “significant hurdles in trying to assess criminal liability.”

Montgomery wanted an overhaul of the state’s lobbying laws.

Among Montgomery’s recommendations was to completely ban gifts or require such a low threshold for mandatory reporting that it becomes almost impossible to manipulate the system.

He also suggested combining the statutes regulating gifts for lawmakers and lobbyists under one title, making intentional violations of reporting laws a felony and creating a “reckless” standard that would carry a stiff fine.

Lewis told the Arizona Capitol Times he believes three to seven days is a reasonable time for lawmakers and lobbyists to submit their reports.

“What we don’t want is to have a long, long wait (for people) to see just what’s really going on,” Lewis said. “We also don’t want to create a situation where someone is very busy and forgets one day, and we don’t want them to get hammered.”

Lewis said the aim is to lift the “confusing curtain of unclear rules and an antiquated public database,’’ referring to the current requirement to disclose only every three months.

Reached by phone, Ableser said he’s flattered that Lewis is championing legislation he had been pushing since his first years in the Legislature. In 2007, Ableser authored a proposal that prohibited, with limited exemptions, gifts to public officers and employees.

His bill, which never received a hearing, also sought to expand the definition of gifts to include entertainment events. Ableser’s proposal was more stringent than Lewis’ plan.

The Democrat repeatedly introduced the legislation to no avail.

“I’ll tell you one thing. It is flattering Jerry Lewis is copying my bill,” Ableser said, adding, “If there was the academic integrity issue at stake, he would cite me as someone who proposed it before him.”

Ableser said he’ll continue fighting for the legislation, and added that if the Democrats take control of the Senate, “We’re passing that bill.”

In a news release from Lewis, Montgomery was quoted as saying he’s encouraged by the proposal and looks forward to working with Lewis in the upcoming session.

Pierce also said the proposal has his support.

“I fully support Senator Lewis’ plan, which I believe will enhance transparency and strengthen the public’s trust in their elected officials,” Lewis’ email quoted the Senate president as saying.

Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said he will be proud to co-sponsor the proposal.

The proposal also has the backing of Democrats. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said he welcomes steps toward transparency and improving the public’s trust in government.

Jack Brown, a Democrat from St Johns who was one of Arizona’s longest serving legislators, also endorsed the idea behind Lewis’ proposal.

“Common sense is a rare thing at the state Capitol, but this proposal makes sense to me,” Brown said. “I would gladly vote for it if I were still at the Legislature.”

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