A plan to increase by 500 percent the amount in meals and other gifts that a lobbyist can give to a legislator in Oklahoma each year is raising concerns from a public watchdog group and some state legislators over the growing influence of money in politics.
The proposed change is part of a major overhaul of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission rules that govern the activities of candidates, campaigns and lobbyists.
Under current rules, a lobbyist is limited to giving a legislator $100 worth of meals and gifts, with more than a dozen exclusions to what constitutes a thing of value. The new rule would increase the limit to $500, and eliminate the exclusions.
“Five-hundred dollars buys a lot of very nice meals,” said Lynn Howell, the chairman of Common Cause Oklahoma, a public watchdog group. “These public officials can be wined and dined by special interests, and the common guy really doesn’t have that kind of access.”
The overhaul of the agency’s rules is being overseen by the new head of the agency, Lee Slater, an attorney who undertook a similar rewrite of the state’s election laws in the 1970s as Oklahoma’s election board secretary.
Slater defended the increase, saying the $100 limit was too low and that the new rules will apply to a broader range of lobbyists, including state employees who serve as legislative liaisons as well as those who lobby state agencies.
“That ($100) would not be considered a reasonable limit for conventional business practices, and I think that ought to be the standard,” said Slater, who spent the last 25 years in private practice. “Business breakfasts, lunches and dinners are standard procedures. I had clients that wanted to do all three.”
The proposed increase in the meal and gift limit was approved at a recent meeting of the five-member Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Another meeting will be held Dec. 13 to consider a series of changes to the agency’s rules on campaign finance.
All of the proposed rules changes must then be considered by the Legislature, which has the power to reject them.
Some legislators have voiced concern about the rule changes. State Rep. Mike Reynolds said he plans to introduce a resolution in the upcoming session to disapprove of them.
“I say they’re not doing anything good for the citizens of Oklahoma here,” said Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City. “All it does is open up the ability for lobbyists, universities and people like that to make huge contributions.”