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Note to the Legislature: Act fast, do not hesitate, to swat down a plan to allow lobbyists to wine and dine individual lawmakers.
An East Tennessee representative has filed such a bill, a clear step backward into an ethical morass that has caused the state so much pain in the past.
Can he have so soon forgotten the Tennessee Waltz and Rocky Top, those influence-peddling scandals that sent officials to prison and produced high-level suicides?
Current law forbids lobbyists from buying food and drink for legislators unless all 132 state legislators are invited. The new proposal would allow parties for individual lawmakers who serve on important committees.
The existing law is part of a reform package adopted after the FBI arrested five legislators in a 2005 bribery sting, the “Tennessee Waltz,” which culminated in conviction of 11 people. The reform not only required that any food/drink occasion be open to all lawmakers, but also limited cash donations to legislators to $50, required lobbyists to list their clients and created an ethics commission.
In 1989, another ethics law was passed after two prominent state officials committed suicide and a third went to prison in the bingo gambling sting, “Rocky Top.” It caught officials taking bribes to sell bingo licenses to fake charities.
Even earlier, in 1979, Gov. Ray Blanton was removed from office because he was about to release prison inmates who had bribed officials. He spent two years in prison and the Legislature vowed to operate in the sunshine.
Lobbyists exercise great influence over legislators, but they must not be allowed to buy votes. They have no business giving anything to people who make the laws they want to influence. As one commentator said, it just opens Pandora’s box.
Even the current law allows a lot of entertaining at lobbyists’ expense. On a typical night when the Legislature is in session, Nashville columnist Gail Kerr pointed out, lawmakers can go from party to party.
If the Legislature values the people’s trust, it will recognize the danger this new proposal presents. Shoot it down.
-The Paris Post-Intelligencer, Paris, Tenn.