Every once in awhile, Minnesotans should pause and say thanks to John Marty.
Marty, you recall, is the DFL state senator from Roseville who 13 years ago pushed a gift ban through a grumbling Minnesota Legislature. No longer could lobbyists, or others seeking influence with our state politicians, buy so much as a cup of coffee for our leaders.
A reminder of how far ahead of the curve Marty was in this ethics business came out of Louisiana last week, where legislators unhappily passed ethics reforms pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. Among other things, the reforms put a $50 ceiling on meals and drinks that lobbyists can buy lawmakers. That’s right. Fifty dollars.
“We’re trying for the gold standard in ethics,” said Jindal of the reform.
Remarkably, some in Louisiana found the $50 ceiling awfully restrictive.
The head of the Louisiana Restaurant Association pointed out that dining out on $50 “is not a lot of money these days.”
Louisiana Rep. Charmaine Marchand told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the ceiling would force legislators to eat at fast-food restaurants, quickly adding she was joking.
She was serious, though, when she expressed concern that such a ceiling could create “inadvertent” problems for legislators and lobbyists if a meal and cocktails “went one penny over the limit.”
“All this ethics stuff is what we need,” she said, “but we need to be careful about what we do.”
Marty laughed when he heard about the “gold-standard ethics” reform and concerns.
“Fifty dollars!” he said, incredulously. “Well, I suppose the way inflation is going, that’s about what it will cost at a fast-food restaurant 10 years from now.”
Marty said many of his colleagues remain upset about the ban. But unlike the first 11 years the ban was in place, there have been no major efforts to rescind it in the last two years.
“People still get upset and say it’s insulting that you think I could be bought for a cup of coffee,” Marty said. “It’s always the assumption that’s its conscious corruption.”
But, he said, the more he has studied the impact of even small gifts on legislators, the more he has come to believe that a total ban is the only way to go.
“Psychological studies show that even small gifts — a coffee mug, any little token — impacts our behavior,” Marty said. “It’s absolutely a subconscious thing, but it’s also absolutely real.”
To Marty’s way of thinking, huge loopholes still exist in Minnesota ethics laws. For example, there’s nothing preventing a member of the Legislature from accepting a large consulting fee from the tobacco industry. And those consulting fees can go unreported to anyone.
“If you’re the consultant, you’re not allowed to discuss tobacco legislation,” Marty said. “But you can consult with them about what sort of flowers should be placed in front of their office building. It’s clear what the intent is. At the least, this should be reported.”
Marty also is uncomfortable with the huge amounts of money that organizations with business before the Legislature can contribute to the respective political parties.
“I don’t think the Vikings give large amounts of money to the two parties because they are so excited about democracy,” Marty said.
Still, one only needs to look to Louisiana, to see how blatantly cozy the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists can be. Hungry legislators there are going to have to get by on a $50 meal.
Thanks to Marty, the starving pols can’t get so much as the crumbs off the table here.