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Editorial: Let’s revisit Legislature’s gift law

A state ethics law bars New Hampshire lawmakers from accepting gifts worth $25 or more – but that won’t stop them from happily taking free tickets worth $125 apiece to attend a fancy dinner put on by the Business and Industry Association in Manchester later this month.

Does that sound kosher to you?

The Legislative Ethics Committee voted 6-0 recently that the BIA event was “celebratory” and therefore exempt from the general gift ban. Take a look at the ethics rules, and you’ll soon come to see that the committee was, strangely enough, following the law.

The trouble, in fact, is the law.

The rules about what sort of gifts legislators can and cannot take have been in effect since 2006. At the time of their creation, legislators professed a desire to change a political culture that included regular gift-giving to lawmakers – the most infamous example of which was former House speaker Gene Chandler’s failure to report $64,000 he received in gifts over a six-year period and used for personal expenses. Nearly a decade ago he pleaded guilty, paid a fine and performed community service.

The law now bans most gifts to legislators – except for a long string of exemptions. Some seem logical: Most legislators have to be able to take a salary from their employers, for instance. Being able to be repaid for a bona fide loan also makes sense.

But some of the exemptions seem aimed at protecting longtime customs, even if doing so contradicts the overall spirit of the law. Big dinners in which awards are conferred and congratulatory speeches are given is one such exemption. According to the law, a gift is not a gift if it is a ticket to “any event for which the primary significance is ceremonial or celebratory, provided the event is public or, if by invitation only, is planned to have an attendance greater than 50 people.”

That’s why the ethics committee approved the free BIA tickets. But even as it did so, the committee expressed some unease. “BIA makes no secret that it is a pre-eminent lobbying organization,” Chairman Martin Gross wrote. “Any effective lobbying effort includes cultivating cordial relationships with legislators. There is little doubt that its Annual Dinner invitations to legislators are part of that effort. If the BIA had no interest in legislation, there would be no point offering free admission to legislators. Clearly, one of the purposes of the Dinner and the free invitations is to advance BIA’s legislative agenda.”

Here’s another big, big loophole to the no-gifts rule: lunches or dinners with lobbyists in which legislation is discussed. Or, as the law describes it “meals and beverages consumed at a meeting or event, the purpose of which is to discuss official business.”

The good news: A committee to study not just gift-giving but the Legislature’s overall ethics rules and procedures is set to get under way this week. The group includes sober-minded members who will no doubt take their charge seriously. Among them are local legislators Gary Richardson of Hopkinton and Katherine Rogers of Concord and former House speaker Donna Sytek.

We’d encourage this group to look hard at the long list of exemptions to the no-gifts rule, for starters. Do they really think it’s a good idea for legislators to accept free lunches from lobbyists, for instance? Do they really think groups such as the BIA should be able to buy such extraordinary access to lawmakers, even at an event in which the BIA and pending legislation aren’t on the formal agenda?

We’ve got nothing against the BIA’s annual dinner. This year’s event will honor the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation with the BIA’s New Hampshire Advantage Award. New England Wire Technologies Chairman Wendell Jesseman and former speaker Sytek will accept Lifetime Achievement awards. Worthy honorees, and no doubt a interesting evening. But we’d rather see legislators pay to attend, just like everyone else.

I agree. In fact I wrote a blog for the Concord Patch in May of 2012, critical of our city's newly enacted ethics rules for the city council. Our city has the same loophole as the state. I still don't understand how being invited as a guest and having the costs of the event paid for by the sponsor isn't a gift. Here is part of what the city's ethics code states: "...Reimbursement for the cost of attending an event at which the officer or elected official is a speaker, member of a panel, or guest, shall not be considered a gift..." And remember the event the city councilor or state legislator is attending can be hosted by an organization that wants to do business with the city or state and that the councilor or legislator will be voting on whether or not the company's contract will be approved. Is it any wonder why we are skeptical when an elected official says 'trust me'.

I think their argument is because of the low pay they get, they have to work for food.

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