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Senate panel approves gift ban without loopholes


PHOENIX – Five years after the AzScam votes-for-money sting shocked the state and left a handful of lawmakers in disgrace, a Senate panel last night passed a comprehensive ban on gifts from lobbyists.

Current law already prohibits lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $10. But gifts were defined as a payment or tangible property. Some exemptions in that ban included entertainment, dining, travel, flowers and professional services.

On a vote of 6-1, with Scottsdale Republican Randall Gnant opposed, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided those weren’t good anymore, either.

And the lawmakers voted for full disclosure of other exemptions that allow lobbyists to exceed the $10 limit as long as it is for a special function, a recognition plaque or informational material.

Flagstaff Republican John Wettaw said it was “totally improper’ for his colleagues to attend Phoenix Suns games as guests of lobbyists, or to go to high-priced dinners and hand over the tab.

“I think it’s time to put the kibosh to them. Nobody here is starving. If you want to go, go and enjoy yourself, but there’s no reason you can’t pick up the tab,’ Wettaw said.

The original measure before lawmakers would have eliminated all gifts, regardless of price, except it left the exemptions intact. Senate Majority Leader Tom Patterson, R-Phoenix, has said that was more of a practical matter than a philosophical one. He said it was aggravating to call constituents and have to ask them how much they spent on a gift.

But Sen. Chris Cummiskey, a Phoenix Democrat who has taken several stabs at reforming the legislative process, offered the amendment to scrap the exemptions.

Cummiskey said he has been trying for five years to fix the gift problem, but that without the amendment the measure “borders on the absurd.’

Lawmakers, he said, would worry about whether they could accept a lapel pin or a coffee mug and then go to a basketball game at the expense of a lobbyist.

“We need to be sure the public is on the same footing as the people who are down here on a regular basis,’ he said.

The measure, Senate Bill 1131, must be approved by the full Senate before heading over to the House.

Mike Evans, director of Arizona Common Cause, said, “We don’t like removing the $10 limit because it portrays itself as a total gift ban, but that isn’t true.’ He supported the Cummiskey amendment.

Bart Turner, executive director of the Valley Citizens League, said the public isn’t concerned about $10 gifts, but is concerned about sports tickets and pricey greens fees on elite golf courses.

He said even if only a few take advantage of the loopholes, it reflects poorly on the whole body.

In the 1991 AzScam scandal, seven lawmakers were accused of taking bribes from an undercover agent posing as a crooked lobbyist who wanted to build casinos.

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