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House Democratic Leader Jeff Merkley Endorses Stricter Gift Limits, Stronger Penalties for Legislators

House Democratic Leader Jeff Merkley (D-Portland) testified yesterday before the Government Ethics Work Group of the Oregon Law Commission. In his testimony, Rep. Merkley endorsed the strict limits on gifts to state legislators, far stronger penalties for violations of ethics rules, and greater accountability and transparency among lobbyists and legislators.

In light of recent media reports that at least eight current and former state legislators failed to report trips to Hawaii and Israel paid for by lobbyists, Rep. Merkley endorsed a fine for such offenses, proposed by the Law Commission, that is five times higher than the current penalty. In addition to raising the fine from $1000 to $5000, Rep. Merkley also proposed a prohibition on legislators using their campaign funds to pay that fine to the Government Standards and Practices Committee.

“We need to make it clear to legislators, if it isn’t already, that they bear total responsibility for reporting these trips,” Rep. Merkley said. “Legislators should be held accountable for failing to abide by the law.”

Although failure to report lobbyist-funded trips are the most recent ethics violations to make news, Rep. Merkley urged the panel not to overlook the appearance of impropriety allowed in current rules that cover gifts from lobbyists to legislators. Representative Merkley proposed disallowing all gifts to legislators that carry a monetary or fair market value. Under Rep. Merkley’s plan, legislators could only accept gifts of nominal value, such as promotional coffee mugs or t-shirts.

“Really, there is no need for a legislator to be offered these gifts,” Rep. Merkley said. “It serves no purpose I can think of, and we would establish a better bond with the public if we would just ban gifts altogether.”

Addressing the issue of meals paid for by lobbyists, Rep. Merkley continued, “There is no reason these conversations can’t take place at a table in a conference room without food, just as well as a table in a restaurant with food.”

Representative Merkley praised the work group for its efforts so far to address the need for greater transparency in reporting, inconsistent and counterintuitive gift restrictions and loopholes in the travel rules. “I have noticed that in the legislative process, transparency is very valuable,” Rep. Merkley said.

While he stressed to the panel that he was representing only himself, and not a larger House Democratic Caucus position, Rep. Merkley did note that 23 members of the caucus sponsored legislation in the last session that would have addressed some of these same issues.

Rep. Jeff Merkley’s Proposed Ethics Changes


* No gifts that rise above a de minimis value (gifts of $100 or less currently allowed)


*All private meals paid for by legislator, no exceptions (meals currenlty allowed)


*Entertainment considered a gift, subject to the same rules ($100 or less on entertainment currenlty allowed)


*$5000 fine for violations (up from $1,000), not payable from legislator’s campaign fund

October 5, 2006
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