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AG, Commerce hammer out ethics agreement

The prospects for a key economic development bill to pass this session just got a lot better.

Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield and Attorney General Steve Marshall have reached an agreement on how to proceed with legislation intended to clarify how the economic development community follows Alabama’s ethics code.

HB317, the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act, is intended to clean up and modernize the state’s incentives and reporting statutes and address a potential pitfall that state and local economic developers say could severely affect their ability to compete. The legislation sailed through committee but then abruptly stalled when the Attorney General’s office expressed concerns over language that would have removed certain economic development activity from the definition of lobbying under
the current ethics law. The two offices have been in talks about how to square the problem facing economic developers with the need to maintain strict ethical standards.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s office dropped a comprehensive ethics overhaul, SB343, that includes an different, narrower approach to economic development. The language agreed upon by Marshall and Canfield would allow full time economic developers such as site selectors and chamber employees to do their jobs without having to register as lobbyists, while part time economic development workers would be required to seek permission from the Ethics Commission to do the same. The bill would also contain a specific prohibition for public officials and employees from claiming to be economic development professionals to skirt the ethics code. 

A source familiar with the negotiations said an agreement had been reached and would be announced as soon as this week. HB317 is scheduled to be considered on the House floor Tuesday, when a substitute amendment will likely be adopted.

At issue is an interpretation of Alabama’s ethics code that would require site selectors and even local chamber of commerce employees to register as lobbyists in order to approach the state about bringing a major project to Alabama. That could cause Alabama to be taken off the short list for many projects because site selectors cannot disclose the name of their potential project before negotiations begin. Canfield wrote lawmakers last month warning that competitor states were beginning to use Alabama’s ethics requirements against us in industry recruiting battles.

The 2010 overhaul to Alabama’s Ethics Code required those seeking to do business with the Executive Branch to register as lobbyists with the Ethics Commission. Before, those lobbying the governor or cabinet officials for prison, Medicaid, mental health, or other executive contracts were not required to register as lobbyists like those seeking to influence state lawmakers are.

That law is being interpreted to apply to a project site selector or local chamber of commerce director who wants to approach the state about a potential economic development project. Because major projects like Toyota-Mazda are secretive in their early stages, state and local leaders say requiring site selectors to register and disclose the name of their client is more than enough to spook away a project.

The Alabama Ethics Commission recently voted to allow the legislature time to clarify the law rather than issue an advisory opinion that could have been damaging to job recruitment efforts.

The Attorney General recently unveiled more sweeping legislation to clear up other confusing provisions of Alabama’s ethics code. That bill is not likely to see much legislative action, but a working group chaired by Marshall and Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton will be engaging lawmakers on ideas for updating the code.

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