Local Politics

Ethics Rules Change Menu, Relationships on Jones Street

Posted March 7, 2007 6:43 p.m. EST
Updated March 7, 2007 6:55 p.m. EST

— State lawmakers are watching every move they make these days -- what they eat, who they tip and how they go about business -- to comply with new ethics rules.

"The mood is caution. People are being very careful to be in compliance," lobbyist Bill Scoggin said. "People are turning down coffee mugs."

Both lobbyists and legislators said they don't want to cross the ethics line, but they're still trying to figure out where the line is.

"Can you give a legislator a little memo pad or something like that? So, I think it's a learning period," lobbyist Roz Savritt said.

Veteran state Rep. Doug Yongue admitted that the new rules have altered the culture on Jones Street, including eating habits. A lobbyist previously might have expensed a thick steak and a bottle of wine for lawmakers, but senators and representatives now have to foot the bill themselves -- that usually changes the menu.

"Maybe a small bowl of soup, house salad or something. You're probably going to see a leaner, meaner legislature. Some of them will probably be losing some weight," said Yongue, D-Scotland. "I think the ethics reform is healthy."

Former House Speaker Jim Black's legal troubles -- he pleaded guilty last month to accepting illegal cash contributions from special interests -- drove many of the ethics changes, but there are unintended consequences. The new rules apply to all legislative employees, so the cafeteria staff technically isn't supposed to accept tips.

"It's ironic that I can't leave a $1 tip to a cafeteria employee, but I could still, if I had that power, take $100,000 in contributions from video poker," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford.

While some groups push for more ethics laws this session, minor rules changes are also in the works that would, for instance, allow cafeteria workers to receive tips.