MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The director of the state Ethics Commission said a bill before Alabama lawmakers could open up a potentially wide loophole in state ethics law by carving out an exemption for people doing economic development work.
"I think it's a bad bill that weakens the ethics law considerably," Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill to exempt economic developers from the definition of lobbyist under the state ethics law. Supporters argued it is needed to help Alabama compete with other states for projects and factories by keeping developers' activity confidential, but critics said it opens up an exemption in the ethics law that governs interactions with government officials.
The bill says that an economic development professional — defined as a person who does full-time economic development work or works part-time and is "precertified" by the Ethics Commission — shall not be considered a lobbyist.
"It exempts people from the definition of lobbying when I think most people would agree that what they are doing is in fact lobbying," Albritton said. "You are also declaring that the other portions of the ethics act related to a lobbyist's transaction with public officials no longer apply to them. That's where the problem lies in my view."
He said another danger is that "economic development is "often used as kind of catch all designation for activity that people want to conduct with executive branch agencies, or executive offices or the legislature itself."
"At the end of the day, there's a good bit of activity that could be argued is economic development," Albritton said.
Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, who oversees the state's industry recruitment efforts, said his department and professional economic developers asked for the legislation because of confusion that began arising in 2015 on whether developers should register as lobbyists.
"If we don't clarify this under the law, professional site consultants are going to draw a big red line around Alabama," Canfield said.
"That red line is going to say avoid bringing projects to the state of Alabama because there are too many states that will, for one, protect the confidentiality of your project and two, not require you go through training and registration on a regular basis. It will be easier to conduct professional economic development activities in these other states," Canfield said.
Rep. Ken Johnson, the bill's sponsor, said the state should not put a "hurdle" on professional site developers by requiring them to register as lobbyists.
Johnson said the five-member Alabama Ethics Commission previously tabled an advisory opinion on the matter so lawmakers could attempt to address the issue.
Johnson said he believes lawmakers have prevented it from becoming a wide loophole by specifying that the exemption couldn't be claimed by legislators, other public officials and people who are otherwise lobbyists.
The Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said he opposed the bill at first but was pleased with changes to the bill, before its House passage, that he said creates a "narrowly-drawn exemption for full-time economic development professionals."
Albritton said a better way, in his view, would be to keep the developers under the state ethics law, but allow the reports on their activity to remain confidential for a period of time so deals in the making are not publicly disclosed.
The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he wanted to speak with both Marshall's office and the state ethics commission.
"I'm not going to move anything unless the attorney general and the ethics commission are on board with it," Marsh said.