Who is right about the economic development, ethics bill?

Who is right about the economic development, ethics bill?

BY TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

A lot has been written and said about legislation from the Alabama Department of Commerce aiming to fix a potential pitfall facing economic developers. House Bill 317, the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act, would allow economic development professionals to avoid having to register as lobbyists while prohibiting public officials from using that exemption to try to skirt the state’s ethics laws.

The bill has had an interesting legislative journey to say the least, and this week there were more interesting turns.

AWKWARD

Over the weekend and into this week, Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton made waves by coming out pretty strongly against the bill. 

Why was that a big deal? Because when the Attorney General’s office insisted on and got changes to the bill tightening up the prohibition against public officials attempting to claim exemptions, and then the bill passed overwhelmingly on the House floor, many assumed the problems had been worked out.

So, when Albritton called it a “bad bill,” it got a little awkward.

You know what’s even more awkward? Ethics Commission Chairman Jerry Fielding telling lawmakers in a public hearing Wednesday that he and “four out of five” of his fellow commissioners support the bill.

That’s like the CEO of a company disagreeing with the chairman and other members of the board.

SURPRISED?

I wasn’t surprised to see Chairman Fielding support the bill because he told me about the need for it when I talked to him back in January.

One piece of this story folks seem to forget is that, back in August, the Ethics Commission was ready to rule that all economic developers should be treated as lobbyists under the ethics code. But, knowing what a problem that might create for industrial recruiting, commissioners decided to hold off and give the Legislature time to address the problem. You can read my original reporting on the bill from back then.

It also shouldn’t be surprising that Director Albritton isn’t for the bill. He advocated for a different approach: essentially having site selectors come register secretly with him. That sounds reasonable, but industry recruiters said forcing site selectors to register with the government would be enough to spook them away, so they went a different route.

WHAT’S NEXT

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh wants to sit down with Commerce, the AG’s office, and the Ethics Commission to figure out what’s what. Gov. Ivey is now said to be involved as well.

Who is right? I happen to think all involved have good intentions. They just disagree on the proper policy.

It’s not like one side is ethical and the other side is a bunch of crooks, or one side wants to create jobs and the other hates money.

As Arthur Brooks reminds us upon his retirement after a decade leading the American Enterprise Institute, the person on the other side of the debate is not your mortal enemy.

“Bad money drives out good,” Brooks writes. “When half-baked 280-character opinions and tiny hits of click-fueled dopamine displace one’s hard-earned training and vocation, it’s a lousy trade.”

In other words, it may be gratifying to drive a pre-conceived narrative that lauds your side as holy and the other side as evil. But, it’s not very helpful. People can disagree wholeheartedly with each other over policy without questioning each other’s intentions, or worse, their integrity.

My prediction? I think they’ll work something out and pass a bill. I also think this issue will get revisited next year when the Legislature starts working on a more comprehensive ethics code update.