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Ind. House speaker proposes lobbying restrictions

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It seems like everybody at the Indiana Statehouse wants to talk about lobbying ethics these days.

Indiana House Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, introduced a proposal Tuesday that would revamp ethics rules so lawmakers would have to wait a year after leaving office before becoming a Statehouse lobbyist. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said at a news conference later that day that his caucus was working on a similar proposal. House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told reporters that he welcomes the discussion.

So why the sudden focus on lobbying?

Long said the issue has been building over recent years. Bauer said lobbyists have become more powerful in recent years as their business becomes more centralized and state issues grow more complex.

Whatever the reason, those who have pushed for ethics proposals in the past are happy to see the topic rise to the surface.

“It certainly increases attention on the issue and will help focus the debate,” said Julia Vaughn of the watchdog group Common Cause Indiana.

Nearly 30 other states have similar “revolving-door” waiting periods for lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but similar proposals have never made it out of the Indiana General Assembly. Several former Indiana lawmakers have become registered lobbyists, including some who resigned and took lobbying jobs during the next legislative session.

In 2008, some members of a Senate committee considering a waiting period bill took offense at the mere suggestion that lawmakers-turned-lobbyists may seem improper or hint of shady politics. Some said lobbyists are part of the legislative process and others questioned whether a one-year waiting period would change close relationships among lawmakers. The bill went nowhere.

“Just implying that there’s a conflict of interest was controversial in the Senate,” Vaughn said. “It was rather mindblowing.”

In past years, Bauer himself has sent other lobbying proposals to a committee often considered a graveyard for contentious legislation, Bosma noted.

“We welcome the speaker’s conversion on this issue,” Bosma said.

But Bauer said his proposal this year differs from ones introduced in the past because it deals with legislators, lobbyists and the executive branch.

“This has a proper balance,” Bauer said.

Bauer’s plan, among other things, would require lobbyists to report gifts of more than $50 given to legislators and candidates, instead of the current $100 reporting requirement. The proposal would restrict companies that win major state contracts from donating to state office holders.

Bauer said the new rules would help restore public trust in the legislative process while clarifying lobbying rules.

“You just have to have a cleaner, clearer playing field,” Bauer said.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels called Bauer’s plan a “good initiative.”

“While I’ve wanted to respect the legislative branch’s prerogative to set its own standards, absolutely I’m glad to see them moving on this front,” Daniels said.

Long said Senate Republicans would release more details about their proposal in upcoming weeks. He said he supported a cooling-off period for lawmakers who want to be lobbyists and said the Senate plan may also better define what counts as a lobbying gift.

Bauer said he will push his proposal during the legislative session that begins in January, and expects the plan to pass in some form.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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