Perks for public officials at center of Amendment 41 debate
October 19, 2006
By Jared Polis and Pete MaysmithIn Colorado, it is perfectly legal for a lobbyist to give an elected official a $100 steak dinner, a hand held computer worth $600 or season tickets to the Denver Broncos. You could even give an elected official a car or a house – though, thankfully, that hasn’t happened.We think this is wrong. Public confidence in government is already alarmingly low and the “freebies” given by insider lobbyists only makes things worse.Special interests are fueling an unprecedented expansion of lobbying in Colorado – we now have the nation’s fourth highest lobbyist-legislator ratio – eleven lobbyists per state legislator. Last year lobbyists spent $1.6 million on gifts, entertainment and other expenses to influence policy makers. State legislators and Gov. Owens received more than $200,000 in gifts and free trips from lobbyists in 2005. And yes, the examples cited above were actual gifts received by legislators.We think Coloradans are fed up with the corrupting influence of all these freebies and the cozy relationships that lobbyists cultivate. Coloradans rightfully question whether public officials are fighting for their interests or for the special interests.To restore trust in government, we are proposing common-sense, meaningful restrictions to protect the public interest. We want Colorado to join the 26 states that restrict lobbyist gifts, the 27 states that require a cooling-off period before former public officials can lobby their colleagues and the 39 states with an ethics commission. Today, Colorado has none of these protections.That’s why Coloradans for Clean Government supports Amendment 41. The Ethics in Government Initiative raises ethical standards by: Banning lobbyist gifts to public officials, Establishing reasonable restrictions on gift-giving from non-lobbyists, Preventing state legislators and statewide elected officials from becoming paid lobbyists for two years after leaving office, and Creating an independent ethics commission.Not surprisingly, our efforts to pass meaningful reform have stirred up the lobbyists. A group of them, led by the automobile dealers and the mortgage lenders are opposing Amendment 41. They know that they’ll get little sympathy arguing against the lobbyist gift ban, so they’ve resorted to scare tactics, trying to create a smoke screen. Their primary tools are phony concerns, bogus examples and quoting initiative language out of context. Voters should not be fooled.Plain and simple, Amendment 41 raises ethics standards. It does not restrict scholarships, research grants or funds for injured firefighters. It will not restrict any gifts or discounts received by a government employee or family member when the gift or discount has no connection to influencing a public decision. The purpose of the ethics initiative is clear: Public officials must “avoid conduct that is in violation of their public trust; any effort to realize personal financial gain through public service … is a violation of that trust.”The irresponsible examples cited by opponents are not even covered by Amendment 41. On the other hand, a “scholarship” arranged by a lobbyist exclusively for the child of an elected official might be restricted under Amendment 41.Amendment 41 empowers the Legislature to set the rules under which the amendment will be implemented. The wild-eyed claims made by the lobbyists opposing Amendment 41 could occur only if the Legislature agrees. Don’t be fooled by the lobbyists’ campaign spin.By approving Amendment 41 this November, Colorado will raise ethics standards for public officials and take an important step toward restoring faith in government.Jared Polis and Pete Maysmith are co-chairs of Coloradans for Clean Government.
By Randy AtkinsonWould you support a constitutional amendment that made it illegal to give scholarships to worthy students and denies community assistance to firefighters who are injured on the job? Of course not, but what if the amendment was wrapped in the cloak of improving government ethics? That makes it a little more appealing, doesn’t it?Amendment 41 is just this sort of bait-and-switch measure. Its authors claim Amendment 41 is about reducing the influence of special interests on elected officials, but it goes far beyond its stated goal. Amendment 41 would make it unconstitutional for any state, city or county worker, no matter how menial their job, to accept more than $50 in gifts, both monetary and non-monetary, from any individual or entity in a calendar year. To make matters worse, the gift ban also applies to the spouses and dependent children of government workers.Amendment 41 exempts gifts from family members and personal friends on “special occasions,” so Christmas and birthday presents are OK, but college scholarships and assistance for the families of injured firefighters and police officers are off limits. Colorado’s bankers even believe Amendment 41 would ban them from offering free checking accounts to government workers and their families, even when they make the same offer to all their customers.Other states have enacted gift bans for elected officials. However, no other state has applied its gift ban to rookie police officers, highway workers and the people who clean city hall. And, no other state has put these restrictions in its constitution.Among Amendment 41’s other shortcomings is its so-called ethics commission. Commission members would be appointed by politicians and have far-reaching subpoena powers. There are no actual qualifications for those serving on the commission. Other states with ethics commissions have been careful to ensure that politicians and their cronies are not in charge of deciding what is or is not ethical. Amendment 41’s kangaroo court is completely devoid of these safeguards.Clearly, Amendment 41 goes too far. That’s why organizations like the League of Women Voters, Colorado Nonprofit Association, Colorado Professional Firefighters Association, Colorado Police Protective Association, Colorado Senior Lobby and Colorado Alliance for Retired Americans oppose Amendment 41.Proponents of Amendment 41 may not have intended these insidious pitfalls and traps, but Coloradans aren’t being asked to vote on their “intent.” Instead, Coloradans are being asked to vote on the words Amendment 41 would place in our constitution. Even some proponents privately have indicated that they would write Amendment 41 differently – if they had to do it all over again.Let’s send the authors of Amendment 41 back to the drawing board. Let’s tell them that if they want to ban gifts to elected officials and their families, they ought to write a proposal that hits its target – rather than the innocent families of government workers.Firefighters are always there when their neighbors need them; whether it’s in a professional capacity or as volunteers raising money for charities like the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Please, don’t deny firefighters, or any public employee, a helping hand when we need one. Vote no on Amendment 41.Randy Atkinson is president of the Colorado Professional Fire Fighters Association.
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