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VOL. 122 | NO. 142 | Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ethics Reforms Didn't Take Away Lobbyists' Power, Bredesen Says

By BETH RUCKER | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE (AP) - More than a year after lawmakers passed stricter ethics and disclosure laws, lobbyists still hold tremendous power over the legislative process, Gov. Phil Bredesen said.

The new ethics laws - approved in early 2006 after an FBI corruption investigation - took much of the money out of the relationship between lobbyist and lawmaker, but lobbyists still do plenty to craft and influence legislation.

"The power of the lobbyist is based on a lot of things besides buying dinner at Morton's steakhouse," Bredesen said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "It's astonishing how much power they still have."

The new ethics laws restricted lobbyist spending on lawmakers, required more stringent financial disclosures from public officials and created the Tennessee Ethics Commission to oversee many of the new requirements.

It was a response to the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting, in which Democratic Sens. John Ford, Ward Crutchfield, Kathryn Bowers, Republican Rep. Chris Newton and former Democratic Sen. Roscoe Dixon were charged with taking bribes.

Because lawmakers spend only part of the year in session and have a limited support staff, they depend on lobbyists for help developing - and sometimes debating and killing - complex legislation, the governor said.

"A lot of the process of the legislature tends to be negotiations among the lobbyists," he said.

Lobbyists are often called on during legislative committee meetings to explain the merits of a bill or answer lawmakers' questions.

Bredesen said he's been told that lawmakers sometimes gather lobbyists who are at odds over a piece of legislation and allow them to work out their differences through changes to the bill.

Mark Greene, a lobbyist whose clients include the Tennessee Lobbyists Association and the Tennessee Pharmacists Association, said he and his colleagues are necessary to the legislative process.

"Many issues are complex and highly technical," he said. "Legislators realize the importance of involving individuals with a particular expertise."

Greene said there are sometimes hotly contested issues that are considered "turf battles" between opposing interest groups that don't have much impact on the general public. He said lobbyists are sometimes encouraged to work out differences themselves in these cases.

"In any event, legislators who regularly face the voters must review and approve any recommendations made by lobbyists," he said.

Bredesen said he thinks ethics reform has had a positive effect in its prohibiting lobbyists from making campaign contributions and from "wining and dining" lawmakers by taking them out to dinner and offering other free perks.

Rep. Frank Buck, one of the primary authors of the new ethics laws, said that even without the temptation of money from lobbyists in response to support for legislation, the chance of power and prestige could cause a lawmaker to ignore the laws.

Buck said lawmakers respond to flattery and friendships they've formed with lobbyists over time.

"We get to the point that we lust after power so bad, we lose a sense of what's right and wrong," Buck, D-Dowelltown said. "I think you have a group of people in the General Assembly that lust after power so badly that they're willing to look the other way."

In Brief: Ethics Reform Bill

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a sweeping ethics reform bill in February 2006 in the wake of the FBI's Tennessee Waltz investigation into public corruption. Provisions of that legislation affecting lobbyists include the following:

- Bans lobbyists from making campaign contributions, but allows them to contribute to or manage political action committees.

- Requires employers of lobbyists to report all money spent to influence legislation.

- Limits employers of lobbyists to spending $50 a day, and no more than $100 a year, entertaining a lawmaker - as long as that lawmaker isn't receiving his or her per diem payment.

- Requires lobbyists to take ethics training.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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