House passes ethics bill but Senate won't vote until Monday - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

House passes ethics bill but Senate won't vote until Monday

Loud objections from some lawmakers in the House stalled a sweeping ethics reform measure on Thursday, just as it seemed the bill was on the fast track to the governor's desk. The objections surprised Democratic and Republican leaders, who stood side by side as they urged lawmakers to pass the bill. "Today we stand together because we believe this is important to maintain public confidence in this Legislature," said Republican leader Tre' Hargett. The measure did clear the House after two hours of debate on a 92-3-1 vote - but the delay scuttled any hope that it could be quickly sent to the Senate for speedy passage.

The Senate, which completed its calendar and adjourned before the House acted, scheduled a vote on the bill for Monday evening. The turn of events was yet one more twist in weeks of effort to develop a reform package aimed at restoring the reputation of a General Assembly mired in a scandal centered on Memphis Sen. John Ford and his business ties to state contractors. The loudest complaints came from Memphis representatives, including three who voted no on a measure that in the past has had unanimous support. But in past votes, the tougher ethics bills were a long way from becoming law. This time, senators are promising quick action Monday. "We have been placed in a position where we are being forced to do something that we know will adversely affect each and every one of us," said Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis. Deberry, who voted for the bill in the end, said innocent lawmakers are going to pay the price for the rush to action on a measure that he said suggests they are all guilty. "We're not some group of mongrel crazies that appeared out of the primordial ooze," Deberry said. Voting no were Memphis Democrats Kathryn Bowers, Joe Towns and Larry Turner, while Barbara Cooper didn't vote. Republican Jerome Cochran of Johnson City also didn't vote. Even as state and federal investigations into Ford's business ties intensify, a few lawmakers lashed out at a measure that generally tries to ban public officials at all levels of state and local government from taking money from government contractors. "What we're doing here, is we're laying traps for honest, semi-honest, politicians," said Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. "And the real crooks, the real big fish, are going to swim on through." He said he wanted another year to study the issue.

Leaders, facing pressure from an anxious public to do something about the Ford scandal, had hoped to have the bill on the way to Gov. Phil Bredesen's desk by Thursday afternoon. "I got some votes I didn't expect that I would get today," said House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington. "Some people have a difference of opinion, and I respect their vote." Under the measure, officials who take money from those doing business with or seeking to do business with government would be guilty of a class A misdemeanor. Violators could be sentenced to up to a year in jail and never hold office again. The bill also clarifies that any lobbying or consulting work that rises to the level of bribery - trading cash directly for a vote - will continue to be a felony. It also requires spouses of lawmakers - along with most state employees - to disclose any lobbying or consulting deals. One late addition to the bill made a number of lawmakers uncomfortable because it would force everyone to fully report specific sources of income over $200, including business names and addresses. Right now, lawmakers can simply report broad areas they earn income in, like "consulting" or "insurance." House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville, called the measure "comprehensive and meaningful." Both Hargett and McMillan promised more ethics legislation, including more rules for lobbyists and financial disclosures. "There is still more important work to be done on ethics reform," Hargett said. "But I don't want anyone to believe this is not a significant piece of legislation." Gov. Phil Bredesen has declined to be openly involved as the Legislature has struggled to toughen its ethics provisions. But he has said he is looking forward to signing reform into law this year. Issues surrounding Ford have been gaining speed in recent days.

Just Thursday, the state stepped up efforts to rein in two TennCare contractors with ties to Ford. Other managed care organizations have been told to come clean immediately if they have any side deals with state officials. Lawmakers said the ethics reform will shed too much light on financial dealings to keep shady transactions out of the public eye. "This is at the very core of our process and trying to maintain public confidence in this body," Hargett said. "How can that be wrong?" Under the bill, the first, new detailed financial reports on 2005 income will be due in February 2006.


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

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