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PAR Says Don’t Weaken Ethics Laws

Rising ticket prices have prompted some legislators to complain about ethics laws that prohibit them from receiving tickets to sporting and cultural events valued above $100 per event (or $500 a year per donor). They complain that the current threshold prevents elected officials from receiving tickets to any but the cheapest seats. Such complaints are totally out of bounds, and no move to relax existing ethics laws should be made.

The $100 limit is set by an exception to the state ethics law that prohibits legislators and other elected public officials from receiving anything of value from lobbyists or persons doing business with, or regulated by, the government. The law allows an elected official to receive food, drink or entertainment from a person doing business with the state while a guest of that person. The ticket exception allows elected public officials to receive the gifts without being accompanied to the event by the giver.

A longstanding PAR recommendation proposes removing the free-ticket exception to bring the state’s ethics laws into alignment with more stringent ethics laws around the nation. A measure to enact this recommendation was defeated in the legislature last year. Nationally, only three states have the most stringent “no cup of coffee” rule that prohibits public servants from receiving anything of value from lobbyists. Nearly a quarter of the states provide exceptions for food and beverages, and almost half of the states set statutory limits on the amount that may be spent on various items.

While a legislator’s vote is unlikely to be influenced by an occasional meal or game ticket, the gift obviously provides the giver with access to the decision maker that others do not have. Requiring legislators to buy their own meals and tickets would limit the temptation for favoritism these gifts may create. Not only should attempts to raise the ticket-price threshold be rejected, but, considering Louisiana’s history of corruption, the most stringent “no cup of coffee” rule should be adopted.

As the state tries to reform its image, Louisiana’s ethics laws should be crafted to ensure that even the appearance of favoritism is avoided. Any expansion of current exceptions would have the opposite effect.

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