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Column: Giant advancements on ethics pass House

By Jimmy Martin

There has been a lot of talk about ethics reform in our state. Alabama House Democrats don’t just talk about the issue-we have consistently taken the lead on passing ethics bills that would make Alabama state government and our political process better.
Increasing transparency and accountability is always a good thing. They say sunshine is the best disinfectant.  Two recent bills that have recently passed the House, if they become law, will certainly increase the light and the public’s right to know in Alabama.
It is still very early in the session and the House has already passed two landmark bills, which if also passed by the Senate, will see Alabama ethics law take a giant step forward.
For the first time in history, last week the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Alvin Holmes (D-Montgomery) that gives the Alabama Ethics Commission subpoena power. Right now the commission has no way to compel folks or corporations to produce records in its ethics investigations. This is a tough way to investigate when you can’t get some basic information from a reluctant source.
House Democrats believe that in order for the ethics commission to do its job, it needed the tool of the subpoena. Requiring information during the course of an investigation is the best way to find out if there have been ethics violations and even whether the law was broken. This bill, if it passes the Senate, will considerably strengthen the Ethics Commission.
The second major bill to pass the House that will increase transparency is the PAC-to-PAC transfer bill. Now, for many people who follow the legislative process this is old hat.  The Alabama House has consistently passed this bill for years, only to see it die in the upper chamber.
Just because it passes without opposition in the House doesn’t lessen its importance. Rep. Jeff McLaughlin (D-Guntersville) has been the sponsor and champion of this bill for years, and it is through his hard work that the House as a body understands how important this is.
A PAC-to-PAC transfer is the practice of moving money from one political action committee to another, often in the attempt of trying to disguise the source of political contributions. It is a form of political money laundering that has remained legal all these years, and that practice must stop.
Knowing where political contributions to a candidate come from is important information that should be known to the voters. Let’s say a candidate pledges to do certain actions that would benefit the banking and insurance industries. It would be important for voters to know whether the candidate has taken money from committees sponsored by the special interests, and how much.
For years, even out-of-state political operatives have taken advantage of our loose laws on political money. When a scandal breaks out in Washington, like the blockbuster Abramoff affair earlier this decade, it often has a major Alabama component where money flowed here and was hidden because of our opaque campaign finance laws.
It is safe to say that ethics reform is a bipartisan issue; it had widespread support on both sides of the aisle as the two bills passed. However, that doesn’t mean some won’t try and take advantage of it for political gain. The governor has repeatedly tried to use ethics reform as a way to score points.
The thing he won’t talk about is that the Legislature passed significant ethics reform in the recent past, only to see the governor himself kill it with a veto. The ethics reform in the bill he stopped had provisions that would extend transparency to the governor’s office itself, making public anyone who lobbies the administration for government contracts and favorable treatment.  Transparency, like accountability, is good for all branches of government.

Jimmy Martin is the state representative for Chilton County.