Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 24, 2012

Changes in ethics code examined

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — In the past two years, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association spent $1 million lobbying Kentucky lawmakers to prevent passage of a bill requiring prescriptions for products with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine used to manufacture methamphetamine.

That amount was reported to the Legislative Ethics Commission but, according to the commission’s general counsel, the group spent far more on public advertising to gin up pressure on lawmakers. And those expenditures weren’t reported because the law doesn’t require them to be.

But John Schaaf and Commission Executive Director Anthony Wilhoit want to see that change. The two men presented to the Interim Committee on State Government Wednesday five recommended changes in Kentucky’s legislative ethics code.

One of them would “require reporting of the cost of advertising which appears during a session of the General Assembly, and which supports or opposes legislation, if the cost is paid by an employer of legislative agents, or a person affiliated with an employer.”

“Since 2010 Consumer Healthcare Products Association spent $1 million on lobbying alone,” Schaaf told the committee, “but it also appears they’ve spent a lot more than that on advertising and that advertising, I suspect, generated a lot of messages to you.”

A bill limiting the amount of those products which can be sold to one customer in a month and over a year passed the 2012 General Assembly. It also tracks those sales through a statewide electronic monitoring system. The bill was directed at reducing the number of homemade meth labs which can explode and leave behind toxic wastes and have been blamed for several child deaths.

But the bill was less restrictive than sponsors originally sought. CHPA and others opposed the restrictions because they said it would penalize legitimate consumers who suffer from colds and allergies.

During debate on the bill, Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained publicly about the money spent by CHPA “to work over lawmakers.”

Other lawmakers who supported the tougher legislation, like Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said at the time they were inundated by messages from constituents who were urged to contact lawmakers by radio ads in their districts.

The change, if approved by the legislature, would also require the costs of phone banks, also utilized by CHPA, to be reported.

Another proposal offered by Wilhoit and Schaaf drew immediate endorsement from the committee’s co-chairs, Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton.

It would allow the ethics commission to dismiss immediately a complaint if it is publicly disclosed by the complaining party. The purpose is to prevent candidates from filing complaints against opponents during an election in order to gain an electoral advantage.

Both Cherry and Thayer said they’ve been victims of such complaints, and Thayer said Wednesday he especially liked that recommended change.

Other recommendations: prohibit employers of lobbyists and political action committees from making a campaign contribution to a legislative candidate or incumbent legislator during a regular session of the General Assembly; limit interaction between lobbyists and candidates for the General Assembly in the same ways such limits already apply to incumbent lawmakers; and prohibit lobbyists or their employers from spending any money on food or beverages for legislators or to pay for out-of-state travel, food or lodging for lawmakers.

Those aren’t major problems now, Wilhoit said. Some present more administrative problems than actual ethical concerns while others, Schaaf said, are an effort to anticipate future excesses.

Thayer and Cherry said they don’t anticipate much opposition to the changes and praised the commission for recommending a small, manageable number of changes.

“I think a big difference from previous commission recommendations is that those were very thick and long,” Thayer said. “The commission made a wise choice by winnowing down their recommendations.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.