Increased transparency shouldn’t mean more undisclosed perks for legislators

Tom Niehaus accepting a gift, presumably worth less than $25, from e-school lobbyists.

Outgoing Senate President, Tom Niehaus, has introduced legislation that would overhaul the laws governing the ethical behavior of public officials. The law has not seen major changes since the mid-1990s.

In sponsor testimony, Niehaus explained that his bill would make the state’s ethics laws “simpler” and “more transparent.”

While the bill takes a few positive steps toward transparency, in many important ways, it actually reduces transparency.

In its favor, the bill proposes to put all required disclosure forms online. This will make it easier for the public and news media to research sources of income, gifts and other benefits received by those who hold — or seek to hold — public office.

But the bill actually limits transparency about the many perks showered on state legislators by lobbyists. Currently, legislators are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $75 from lobbyists and must report anything over $25. Niehaus’ proposal would permit legislators to take up to $250 in meals or gifts from lobbyists, with the first $100 of that undisclosed.

Increasing the amount of free stuff a legislator can take from a lobbyist isn’t transparency.

Not long ago, former Governor Bob Taft and members of his staff were charged with failing to report $90 golf games and $150 dinners paid for by people with business before the state. Under these new rules, the reporting requirement would go away. We fail to see a compelling public policy reason to increase the amount of undisclosed gifts and meals a lawmaker can accept from lobbyists. If there is one, it certainly isn’t about simplicity or transparency.