December 18, 2015 •
News You Can Use Digest – December 18, 2015
State Integrity Investigation Brings Calls for Reform as Legislative Sessions Approach
Center for Public Integrity – Nicholas Kusnetz | Published: 12/16/2015
The State Integrity Investigation is yielding calls for change from lawmakers, good-government advocates, and editorial boards across the country. The investigation, published in November, is a data-driven ranking and assessment of each state’s transparency and anti-corruption measures conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. No state earned better than a “C” grade. In several states, publication of poor grades coincided with ethics scandals that have prompted a growing number of political leaders to call for a transformation in how business is done in state capitals.
Why State Legislatures Are Still Pretty White
Governing – Teresa Wiltz | Published: 12/9/2015
The nation’s growing diversity is not reflected in state Legislatures. Nationwide, African-Americans, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for nine percent of state lawmakers. Latinos, who are 17 percent of the population, only account for five percent of legislators. Asian-Americans account for five percent of the population but only one percent of lawmakers. Research shows in local elections, voters tend to vote for candidates who look like them. That is a problem when a large proportion of minority voters are lumped together in a handful of districts. Such clustering increases the chances of there being at least a few minority lawmakers, but makes it less likely there will be very many of them. Another factor is few first- and second-generation immigrants can afford to get by on a part-time legislator’s salary, or have the kind of careers that will afford them the flexibility to serve in office.
E.P.A. Broke Law with Social Media Push for Water Rule, Auditor Finds
New York Times – Eric Lipton and Michael Shea | Published: 12/14/2015
Congressional auditors say the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broke the law on multiple occasions with “covert propaganda” in support of a controversial regulation that gives the agency power over smaller streams of water. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said a pair of social media campaigns by the EPA in support of its “waters of the United States” rule broke laws that prohibit federal agencies from promoting or lobbying for their own actions. GAO faulted the EPA for using Thunderclap, a social media amplification tool, to recruit hundreds of Twitter users to tweet in support of the rule. It also said the EPA broke the law with a blog post that linked to two environmental groups’ pages urging readers to contact members of Congress to oppose legislation.
Spending Bill Bars IRS and Others from Forcing Political Disclosure
USA Today – Fredreka Schouten | Published: 12/16/2015
The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress would bar the IRS from completing regulations to define and potentially crack down on the political activities of nonprofit groups. The bill also would prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from trying to force public companies to disclose their political activities to shareholders and the public. If the spending measure becomes law, any new disclosure rules from either the IRS or federal securities regulators probably could not be completed before the end of President Obama’s term in office. As a practical matter, that appears to bar any new agency rules from taking effect before either the 2016 presidential election or the 2018 midterm elections.
From the States and Municipalities:
California – San Jose Council Votes to Tighten Lobbying Rules
San Jose Mercury News – Ramona Giwargis | Published: 12/15/2015
The San Jose City Council voted to approve a host of changes to strengthen the lobbying ordinance. San Jose nearly a decade ago adopted transparency laws amid public scrutiny over costly backroom deals at City Hall. The rules required lobbyists to register with the city, pay fees, and file quarterly reports showing who they are meeting with and why. Another policy required elected officials to publish their calendars online to show how they spend their time. But a review found hundreds of contacts reported by lobbyists did not show up on the politicians’ calendars. Mayor Sam Liccardo recommended that lobbyists file online weekly reports and specify whether an interaction with an elected official is in-person, by phone, or email.
Florida – Broward Commission Rewrites its Ethics Code, Allows $5 Gifts
South Florida Sun Sentinel – Brittany Wallman | Published: 12/9/2015
Broward County commissioners loosening a zero-tolerance gift ban to allow a five-dollar limit. The no gift rule had been criticized by city and county officials as too strict, a rule that kept them from accepting a free bottle of water at an event. Under the changes, gifts from lobbyists or vendors of non-alcoholic beverages are allowed. And gifts of any type from those sources are legal, if they are not worth more than five dollars. In addition, loopholes were added to allow elected officials to accept gifts given to express sympathy, offers of free training, and tickets to charitable events, if the official pays for any meal served there.
Missouri – How This Missouri Mega-Donor Is Making His Pet Projects Part of the 2016 Elections
Huffington Post – Paul Blumenthal | Published: 12/16/2015
Taking advantage of a campaign finance system that greatly empowers wealth, Rex Sinquefield has been able to become the most dominant single political force in the state. Since 2008, he has contributed at least $35 million to candidates, political parties, PACs, and ballot initiative campaigns. The contributions have helped to create an unprecedented Republican Party supermajority in the Legislature. Sinquefield’s donations to ballot initiative campaigns have succeeded in putting significant restrictions on taxes at the local level. But with Democrat Jay Nixon in control of the governor’s mansion, Sinquefield’s main agenda items of eliminating the state’s income tax, expanding charter schools and private school vouchers, and crushing labor union power by passing so-called right-to-work legislation have remained just out of reach.
Nevada – Sheldon Adelson Said to Be Buyer of Las Vegas Review-Journal
New York Times – Ravi Somaiya and Sydney Ember | Published: 12/16/2015
Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate and Republican power broker, is behind the secret purchase of The Las Vegas Review-Journal, according to the newspaper. Speculation has mounted for days that Adelson was the primary backer of News + Media Capital Group, a secret group that acquired The Review-Journal and several local papers for $140 million. In the last presidential campaign, Adelson and his wife spent about $100 million, and the couple are expected to generously help whomever they endorse for president in 2016. Speculation turned to the political influence that Adelson could exert in his home state, a major presidential battleground in November 2016, and host to early Democratic and Republican nominating contests as well as a highly competitive U.S. Senate race.
New Mexico – Former New Mexico Secretary of State Prepares for Jail
Minneapolis Star Tribune – Morgan Lee (Associated Press) | Published: 12/16/2015
Former New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran greed to a 30-day jail sentence after pleading guilty to charges involving the siphoning of money from her election account to fuel a gambling addiction. Under a plea agreement, Duran had the choice to withdraw her pleas but did not. She must pay a $14,000 fine, make restitution of nearly $14,000 to campaign donors, serve five years of probation, and perform 2,000 hours of community service. The sentence also involves in-person apologies to campaign donors and appearances before school children across the state.
New York – Cash Flows Freely in Albany: Laws lax on political fundraising
Poughkeepsie Journal – Jon Campbell | Published: 12/15/2015
Critics contend New York’s wealthy political donors pour money into the campaign accounts of high-powered government officials and are rewarded with access and influence in Albany. As part of a yearlong series, Gannett’s Albany Bureau has explored the intersection of politics and money in New York, examining its impact on public policy, from the $285.5 million spent on education lobbying since 2006 to the rise of public-relations firms working on elections and advocacy campaigns. But it is the state’s laws and limits on political fundraising that critics have long characterized as lax and insufficient. And reformers are hoping the back-to-back convictions of former Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver may finally force Albany to act.
New York – Dean Skelos, Ex-New York Senate Leader, and His Son Are Convicted of Corruption
New York Times – William Rashbaum and Susanne Craig | Published: 12/11/2015
Former New York Sen. Dean Skelos and his son were convicted of charges they used the father’s position as majority leader to pressure companies to provide Adam Skelos with roughly $300,000 via consulting work, a no-show job, and a direct payment of $20,000. Dean Skelos had been one of the most powerful men in state government until his arrest this year, and his conviction – along with that of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – will have repercussions beyond the courtroom. As in Silver’s case, the verdict resulted in Dean Skelos’s expulsion from the Legislature, where both men had served for more than three decades.
South Carolina – S.C. Attorney General’s Office Weighs in on Ethics Law, Possible Window into Prosecutors’ Public Corruption Probe
Charleston Post & Courier – David Slade, Doug Pardue, and Tony Bartelme | Published: 12/16/2015
Amid an ongoing public corruption probe, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office issued an opinion that may hinder prosecutors’ efforts to crack down on ethics violators. The document argued courts would likely rule it is legal under the state’s ethics laws for lawmakers to steer lucrative campaign work to their own companies or those run by family members. The nonbinding opinion delves into the often ethical gray areas of how lawmakers spend campaign money and wield influence, a system that dispensed nearly $100 million since 2009, according to a recent investigation.
Utah – SLC Council Slashes Campaign Contribution Limits
Salt Lake Tribune – Christopher Smart | Published: 12/9/2015
The Salt Lake City Council cut the maximum contribution to a mayoral candidate from $7,500 to $3,500. It also reduced maximum donations to council candidates from $1,500 to $750. Those limits apply to individuals, corporations, nonprofits, and unions. The caps apply only to Salt Lake City. Utah state law contains no limits on campaign contributions.
Washington – Ethics Board Looks at Lawmakers’ Meal Limit
Seattle Times – Joseph O’Sullivan | Published: 12/3/2015
The Legislative Ethics Board (LEB) discussed how to proceed on the trickier elements of a rule that imposed a hard limit on how many free meals that state lawmakers may take from lobbyists. LEB members approved a motion stating there is no special exemption for industry groups such as the Washington Bankers Association, which may feed lawmakers attending functions such as a luncheon or forum. But that motion also stressed such forums likely fall within an existing exemption for lawmakers, and so probably would not count as one of the 12 meals. The rules and discussion follow a review by The Associated Press that found the state’s most active lobbyists had lavished hundreds of meals upon lawmakers, estimated at more than $65,000 in value, in the first four months of 2013.
Wisconsin – Scott Walker Signs Bills on Splitting GAB, Campaign Finance
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Patrick Marley and Jason Stein | Published: 12/16/2015
Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that rewrites Wisconsin’s campaign finance statutes. He also approved legislation that eliminates the state Government Accountability Board and hands its duties over to two new agencies, the Elections Commission and the Ethics Commission. Those new bodies will take over July 1. The campaign finance changes include doubling the limit for individual contributions and eliminating a requirement that donors giving more than $100 identify their employer. It also allows, for the first time, corporate donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees.
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