Lawmakers look at ethics reform - slowly

Lawmakers slogged through reforms to the state's ethics laws on Tuesday, saying it will take time to make sure they close loopholes that allow money to flow inappropriately to state officials. Legislators said they are under pressure to pass meaningful ethics reform as they deal with the backlash surrounding allegations that Sen. John Ford used his position to get large consulting deals. Two separate legislative committees dived into the problem Tuesday, hashing over ways to clean up the General Assembly's image and restrict lawmakers from taking consulting or lobbying deals. But it's not going to happen overnight, they warned. One House committee decided to wait two weeks before acting on a dozen pieces of ethics legislation. And a Senate panel going over a plan to make it illegal for lawmakers to take consulting deals - a measure that cleared the House last week - got tied up on the bill's finer points and was delayed a week. Senators said they need to make sure that lawmakers can't take consulting deals by claiming they are only working on out-of-state contracts - one of Ford's defenses against mounting allegations. They also want to make sure that family members are excluded so that money can't be funneled to a lawmaker's spouse. Proposed amendments also would exclude lobbying, not just consulting.

The House State Government Subcommittee did endorse two measures Tuesday. One from House Democratic Leader Kim McMillan requires detailed reports on the money lobbyists spend entertaining lawmakers and bans lobbyists from working for contingency fees. The other, from House Republican Leader Tre Hargett, would require lawmakers to list income details on their financial disclosure statements, not vague sources. Senate State and Local Government Committee chairman Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said he wants to make sure any loopholes are plugged that would allow money to be funneled in a variety of ways to lawmakers or appointed state officials. He promised the issue will again top his committee's calendar next week. "This General Assembly is at its nadir on public respect, and we need to change that," Cohen said. "The real thing is money. Follow the money." Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, urged senators to quickly approve the House version he is sponsoring, noting the public wants quick action. He also said legislators have to be careful about changing the House bill only to have a measure that dies because they can't agree on the same version. "I don't want this General Assembly, I don't want this committee to be criticized; I don't want all of us to be criticized for moving any slower than we have already moved," he told the panel. Some lawmakers worried that as they tighten the noose around lobbying and consulting deals by insiders, spouses of some administration employees will have to quit their lobbying jobs. But Republicans and Democrats alike, in both chambers, promised the Legislature will finalize tighter rules before adjourning. "Tennesseans deserve ethics legislation that works to restore the public trust and they deserve it now," Herron said. "Meaningful ethics reform is long overdue."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)