MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers passed a proposed ethics law change that would exempt economic development activity from the rules governing lobbyists.
The House of Representatives approved the bill 78-7 after three hours of heated debate on Tuesday. Proponents of the bill said it was necessary for development while its critics argued it rolled back the current ethics law to mitigate corruption.
State Rep. Ken Johnson, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said companies are getting scared away from Alabama at the prospect of having representatives register as lobbyists when seeking economic incentive packages. He said none have had to register yet, but it is a concern.
The bill defines an economic developer as a professional employed part or full time in economic development or trade promotion who would be certified by the state's ethics commission. Public officials could not get paid as lobbyists or be certified as developers. It also allows information about economic deals to remain confidential for five years.
Lobbyists are required to register with the Alabama Ethics Commission and report their activities. Johnson said there were concerns about the gray area between economic development work and lobbying.
Democrats who opposed the bill criticized Johnson's bill as a rollback of the ethics law and potentially a "get out of jail free card" for lawmakers.
"Is this just a backdoor way of reinstating the good old boy system?" asked Rep. A.J. Campbell, a Democrat. "If we said all people needed to register because this is the way it needs to be cleaned up, then why is it changed?"
In 2016, former House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted of ethics violations including using his public office to obtain business and promote clients. In 2017, Rep. Oliver Robinson, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to taking a bribe for using his legislative position to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency's prioritization and expansion of a north Birmingham Superfund site.
"You know we've had a history through the years, we've had people convicted of selling their vote," said Rep. Mary Moore, a Democrat from Birmingham. "They've been doing a lot of economic development and getting wealthy too. People are getting extremely wealthy off of packages in this house."
Johnson countered that there was an amendment specifying that lawmakers would not be exempt from the ethics law.
A comprehensive ethics law reform proposed in the Senate was pushed to next session to be potentially handled by an ethics law task force. Some House members suggested considered all the changes together next year, but Johnson said it couldn't wait.
"Do we want to lose jobs this year?" he said.
The bill now moves for consideration in the Senate.