Years ago, when I covered the Texas Legislature, a senator's aide delighted in passing around cigars in a wrapper bearing the motto: Money talks, bulls--- walks.
It was meant to be a joke, but the message was clear: You'd best spread a little love -- aka campaign contributions -- if you wanted lawmakers to seriously consider your issues.
The influence of money in politics is an ever-present sub-plot at our state Capitol, too. Breeding an unfortunate cynicism that powerful, well-heeled special interests forever will control the public policy debate.
In the midst of what many Oklahomans gloomily regard as a permanently stacked deck, there are glimmers of hope -- modest, but persistent efforts to level the playing field.
In January, for example, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission will once again consider creating a "no gifts list," so that legislators "who do not want to receive things of value from lobbyists" can officially opt out of the schmoozing-go-round.
It's an idea promoted in recent years by, among others, Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who went so far as to post a sign on his Capitol office door declaring he "does not accept items of value from lobbyist-represented entities."
Murphey also introduced legislation to create the "no gifts list" but the proposal never advanced very far.
More recently, Dr. John Wood, a Common Cause representative and Rose State College political science professor, has worked with the Ethics Commission on the proposed rule that would serve the same purpose.
The Ethics Commission, which administers the state's campaign contribution laws and lobbying requirements, debated the rule last January, but it wasn't approved. The commission's chairman, former federal prosecutor John Raley of Ponca City, has asked to revisit the issue in January.
"Why should it be appropriate for any elected official, charged with the responsibility of allocating our tax dollars and writing our laws, to receive money, gifts or things of value from one whose occupation is that of trying to influence legislation?" Raley asked.
"During my seven plus years as a member of the Ethics Commission, no one has satisfactorily provided me an answer to that question."
The Ethics Commission earlier reduced the amount lobbyists can spend on elected officials from $300 to $100 per calendar year. [Lawmakers had the power to reject the rule, but -- rightly figuring it would stir public outrage -- decided to allow it to take effect.]
Yet, each lobbyist, as Dr. Wood points out, still could spend up to $14,900 [$100 times 149 lawmakers] a year on lunches, event tickets and other gifts -- or about half the average Oklahoman's annual income.
It's no contest, especially when you consider that some lobbyists comb the Capitol full-time during the legislative session, ever-present with a thoughtful card or a gift or simply making themselves available to buy lunch when a vote looms on important legislation. It's also an advantage special interests are loath to give up without a fight.
Lawmakers themselves aren't exactly keen on a "no gifts" registry. They know that if one is created, they will be forced to sign up -- meaning no more NBA, concert or football tickets or upscale working dinners -- or risk the wrath of voters.
Can't you just hear challengers: "Unlike the incumbent, when I'm elected, my first order of business will be to sign the 'no gifts list.' I'll send the signal immediately that I'm there to represent you, the people, not the special interests entrenched in Oklahoma City!" Powerful stuff.
It's made even more powerful by Oklahoma's embarrassing history of political corruption.
In recent years, two statewide elected officials, Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan and Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher, were convicted and imprisoned in corruption scandals that involved such "gifts" as trips, furniture and jewelry from special interests.
If there's one thing Oklahoma voters won't tolerate, it's elected officials living a champagne diet on the taxpayers' budget.
Remember U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards? The eight-term Oklahoma City Republican was defeated for re-election in the early 1990s after it was learned he had bounced checks to the House bank, which allowed members to overdraw their accounts without penalty.
Yet, I detect a growing despair among political outsiders with whom I visit that the system is hopelessly partisan and hopelessly corrupt -- not only in Washington, but also in Oklahoma City.
Lawmakers are just people. They love to be fawned over. But it would go a long way toward reshaping public perception -- and changing the system for the better -- if they would get on board with the "no gifts" registry. And really, it shouldn't be all that difficult for the vast majority of lawmakers, given that nearly half of all gifts [48.4%] in spring 2009 went to just the top 10 -- i.e. most powerful -- legislators, according to Dr. Wood.
Rather than having to counter criticism of excessive special interest influence at the Capitol, wouldn't it be easier -- not to mention, more ethical -- to just say no? If a working lunch or dinner is required, for example, make it Dutch treat.
Most Oklahomans can't afford elite football seating at OU or OSU, or courtside or luxury box seating at a Thunder game, but legislators -- the people's elected representatives -- are given special access by those whose business regularly takes them into legislators' offices?
That's not about one-time access to discuss a specific issue. That's about long-term relationship-building aimed at protecting a power advantage in the legislative process.
The new buzzword in American politics is transparency. What could be more transparent than a system that simply forbids lavishing gifts on elected officials?
If lawmakers aren't willing to police themselves, perhaps the Ethics Commission, come January, will.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer www.okobserver.net
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