Tom Niehaus, the president of the Ohio Senate, has dropped into the hopper an update of Ohio’s ethics laws, largely unchanged since 1994. Action appears likely in the lame-duck session, even though the bill wasn’t crafted in urgent reaction to any recent scandal.
The legislature should take the time needed to examine carefully the Niehaus proposal, going beyond the confines of the lame-duck session if that is what it takes. Among the questions that should be considered are whether lobbyists should be permitted to give anything to legislators and, if they are, why everything shouldn’t be disclosed, from the first dollar.
After all, other routes for donating are available, including contributions to campaign committees and political action committees. Corporations, unshackled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, are free to wade into the political arena, spending unlimited amounts to advocate for or against a candidate for office.
The Niehaus bill would increase reporting thresholds, to reflect inflation. For example, lobbyists now can spend up to $75 total on meals and beverages on behalf of a public official and $75 on gifts per year. Those reporting thresholds would rise, modestly, to $100.
The legislation also would increase transparency by requiring the Ohio Ethics Commission to upload financial disclosure filings from all elected and appointed officials, as well as candidates for office, to its website. Now, reports from selected officials are uploaded.
Reporting and registration rules would be streamlined, and both the ethics commission and the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee would be able to call on the attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation to help with investigations. That would add much-needed teeth to the oversight function of those groups.
The aspects of the bill that deal with transparency and enforcement are especially attractive. They should not be allowed to obscure discussion of clamping down further on the questionable practice of allowing lobbyists to present gifts, no matter how small, to members of the state legislature.