Oregon legislators focused on ethics when they convened in Salem this week for the 2007 session. As representative for Lake Oswego and nearby areas, I voted for new House rules limiting the gifts legislators can accept from lobbyists.
Oregonians were troubled to learn recently that several legislators accepted trips to a meeting at a resort in Maui from beer and wine distributors in 2002 and 2004. For those of us who have never been offered such an extravagant trip, gift issues involve much smaller amounts.
Some lobbyists invite legislators out to lunches, dinners and sporting events. While these lobbyists don't ask for a commitment on specific legislation, they probably hope that providing such perks will gain them easier access to lawmakers.
In the past, legislators have been free to accept trips, meals and recreation up to certain limits. They must disclose amounts exceeding those limits on an annual report. The legislators who traveled to Maui violated state law by failing to report the trip.
When I hear from my constituents about it, they say they expect their lawmakers not to accept such offers. Even if accepting gifts, travel and entertainment does not affect a legislator's decisions, the appearance of undue influence undermines the public's confidence in the process.
For these reasons, I support the new Oregon House rules adopted this week to prohibit members from accepting any of the following from someone with business before the legislature:
n Out-of-state travel and lodging.
n Gifts with a value in excess of $10.
n Tickets to entertainment and sporting events.
n Private restaurant meals.
The rules contain some exceptions to avoid impairing the effectiveness of lawmakers. What makes legislative service different from my career as a lawyer and from my other civic activities is the number and variety of people I meet.
To make good decisions I need to hear from as many Oregonians as possible. Sometimes food and modest entertainment are provided where I go to meet people. Recognizing the importance of these interactions, the new rules allow us to accept complimentary meals at public events and at programs where we're speaking.
The Oregon House adopted the restrictions by a change in rules applicable to just its members. The Oregon Senate is considering a law change with a $50 limit on gifts to legislators.
In the past, proposed gift restrictions have met resistance, even though more limited than the ones adopted in the House this week. The new rules moved now because of heightened public concern about the behavior of elected officials.
This concern is driven partially by high-profile Congressional scandals with no counterpart in Oregon. Unfortunately, misbehavior by officials at one level of government affects the public attitude toward officials at all levels.
Most legislators do not abuse the availability of travel, gifts, food, and entertainment. And the new rules create some complications in deciding what's allowed and what's not. But this is a small price to pay for restoring public confidence in the integrity of the Oregon Legislature.
Rep. Greg Macpherson, Lake Oswego, represents Oregon House District 38.