FRANKFORT — An update to the state Executive Branch ethics code — including a proposed change to lobbyists’ registration fees — has passed the House State Government Committee.
House Bill 608 sponsor and House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly, D-Paris, said the bill grew out of legislation sponsored by former State Rep. Tanya Pullin in 2014. That measure, HB 390, made it through the House State Government Committee but stalled in the full House.
HB 608 — which includes many provisions, including language that would require state employees and Executive Branch officials to report suspected violations of the Executive Branch Code of Ethics to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission — would also allow the commission to access its restricted fund for administrative needs that cannot be covered under what Overly called the agency’s current “shoestring” budget. The commission cannot currently use its restricted funds without state budget authorization, says Executive Branch Ethics Commission Executive Director Kathryn Gabhart, adding that the fund has been bled dry in recent years due to budget cuts.
“They don’t have the money to conduct hearings on complaints that are presented to them,” according to Overly. “They estimate, depending on the type of hearing and length of the hearing, it can cost from $7,500 to $35,000. So what that does (to the commission) is puts them in a position where they are forced to settle these matters because they actually don’t have the resources to properly investigate them and take them to hearing.”
That was followed with questions from Rep. Steven Rudy, R-West Paducah, who asked about a provision in HB 608 that would replace a statutory registration fee for executive branch lobbyists with a regulatory fee determined by the commission itself. The statutory fee of $125 has been in place since 2006, said Gabhart.
“They could triple it, they could do whatever and it would not come back to us except by the Administrative Regulations (Review) Committee. That may be what we need to do, but I don’t ever want to hear another cry for budgetary cuts if you can just set your own fees to take care of what you need—I don’t guess you’ll even need another General Fund appropriation if you have this ability,” said Rudy.
Overly said many state agencies have legal authority to set their fees by regulation, calling $125 to lobby the government a “nominal fee.”
“This language has been out there now for just a few short days…but there aren’t any lobbyists that have called (who) have complained in any way about letting Executive Branch Ethics regulate that fee,” said Overly.
The commission serves 32,000 executive branch employees with six employees on staff, four of which are full-time, said Gabhart. She said complaints, hearings, litigation, and appeals have all increased “all the way up to the Supreme Court.” At the same time the commission’s advisory opinions have decreased as its number of investigations have risen, she said.
“Right now we have upwards of 30 matters ongoing and we have four full-time employees and two part-time employees handling those matters,” said Gabhart, adding that each investigation takes thousands of hours of work. Should HB 608 become law, she said an increase in lobbyist fees would just cover what the commission needs to make ends meet.
“That is just enough to keep us afloat,” said Gabhart.
HB 608 would also change how members of the five-member commission are nominated by allowing the Governor, Auditor of Public Accounts, Attorney General, Secretary of State, and State Treasurer to nominate individuals who may be appointed to the commission by the Governor. Absent from the list of constitutional officers able to make nominations under HB 608 is the Commissioner of Agriculture, which spurred Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, to ask why the office was omitted.
Gabhart responded that the State Auditor and Attorney General are mentioned because current law specifies that the commission has a working relationship with those two officials. “The Secretary of State and the Treasurer are the next constitutional officers we deal with the most,” she said. “It wasn’t specifically to leave out the Commissioner of Agriculture, it’s because we only have five members.”
Overly said she would be happy to work with Upchurch on a floor amendment to add the Commissioner of Agriculture to the bill.
HB 608 now goes to the full House for consideration.