THE 2014 legislative session ended last month with lawmakers not having touched proposed new rules from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. This means the rules will go into effect, providing much-needed updates and increased transparency to political activity in the state.
Lee Slater made updating the rules one of his top priorities after being named Ethics Commission chairman in early 2013. Slater came to the job after a long and distinguished legal career that focused on campaign finance and ethics issues. He understood an overhaul was needed.
For example, one rule said families (defined as married couples and their children who are younger than 18 and living at home) could donate no more than $5,000 to a political candidate during a political campaign. The rule had been on the books since 1974 — shortly after the Watergate scandal.
The new rules change “family contributions” to individual contributions. Now a person can give up to $2,600 to a candidate per election (or $7,800 total if the candidate runs in a primary, a runoff and a general election). The individual’s spouse could do the same thing. The limit also can be adjusted every two years based on increases in the Consumer Price Index.
Changes from family contribution limits to individual contribution limits now also apply to donations to political parties and political action committees. The rules set a donation limit of $10,000 per calendar year, per person, to political parties. The new rules increase to $500 per year the amount a lobbyist can spend on a lawmaker for meals (the previous limit was $100). The rules also require more frequent and thorough reporting of lobbyist expenditures.
Under the new rules, legislative liaisons — state employees or officers who lobby at the Capitol on behalf of their agency — must now register with the Ethics Commission and report their expenditures, as is required of traditional lobbyists. The same is true of “executive lobbyists” who deal with agency officials or state officers, but not legislators.
The rules provide some clarity even to aides of elected officials. For example, if state employees regularly schedule meetings and events for an elected state officer, they can now schedule political activities or events without being in violation of the rules. In addition, members of state boards and commissions can now ask the Ethics Commission for guidance in matters that may present a possible conflict of interest. The fact that this was a problem underscores how badly the rules needed to be revised.
Some of the new rules deal with advancements in communications technology. They spell out for candidates and state officers the do’s and don’ts related to state-owned cellphones, email and computers, and offer guidance for usage of social media and Internet.
His goal from the start, Slater said, was to produce rules that were easy enough to understand that compliance would be high. He got some blowback from lawmakers last fall as he went through the vetting process. Ultimately, though, the Legislature wisely left the document alone, leaving political candidates and elected officials with a document about one-fourth shorter and much more sensible than it used to be.