Ethics bills would require lawmaker disclosure of gifts, including for travel

Two different sets of ethics legislation on House and Senate calendars this week would require more disclosure of gifts, including for travel, received by lawmakers from people with an interest in influencing public policy.

Both sets of bills would increase transparency. Currently, anyone who is not a lobbyist or an employer of a lobbyist can give any amount of money or gift to a lawmaker and the lawmaker does not need to report that gift to the Tennessee Ethics Commission.

The issue of such unreported gifts came to light last year after Dave Boucher and Joel Ebert of The Tennessean reported about a Gulf Shores fishing trip hosted by a school voucher advocate,  a trip to Europe for lawmakers to learn about “radical Islam,”  and trips to tour a North Carolina school, also by a voucher proponent.

House Speaker Beth Harwell has said she would support more disclosure of such gifts and in January, the House adopted new policies that would require disclosure of any out-of-state travel valued at more than $100 that is not paid for by the state.

State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga

State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told the Tennessean, however, that he wanted to add something that would last beyond the current legislature. “It’s a lot harder to change unnoticed if it’s actually the law.”

McCormick’s bill, H.B. 275, is being  sponsored in the Senate by Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, (S.B. 327). It would require a member of the general assembly to disclose travel expenses paid on behalf of the member by a person with an interest in a public policy of the state if the travel was for the purpose of informing or advising the member with respect to the policy. Overbey’s bill is on the calendar of the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday.

It would rewrite T.C.A. 8-50-502 (5) related to disclosure statements of conflicts of interest by specifically adding “travel expenses, including any expenses incidental to such travel” if the travel was for advising the member about public policy.

Another piece of legislation, S.B. 1376 / H.B 1123, is being sponsored by state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, and state Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport. It goes further and would apply to a wider range of office holders and officials, including officials in the executive or legislative branch and candidates for office. The bills would prohibit such individuals from soliciting gifts and require disclosure to the ethics commission of a gift of more than $100 from a person who is not a lobbyist or an employer of a lobbyist.

The Hulsey / Briggs bill lays out certain exceptions, such as benefits resulting from an official’s outside business activities and gifts motivated by a close personal friendship. Their bill adds a part to the statute on ethics and lobbying, found in Title 3, Chapter 6. It also provides an out for lawmakers if they do not use the gift, return it to the donor or reimburse the giver within 10 days of receipt, or 10 days of having knowledge that the gift was a violation.

Hulsey’s bill is on the calendar of the House Local Government Subcommittee on Tuesday.


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