Free Trips for Legislators Reviewed with Crucial Eye

Phoenix, AZ – Nothing in state law bars public officials from accepting gifts. The only requirement is that they list them on an annual financial disclosure form. But gifts can include more than trinkets or even buying someone lunch, extending to airfare, hotels and food for out-of-town conferences. One of the major groups paying for these trips is the American Legislative Exchange Council, financed by business interests whose private enterprise board includes executives from some of the largest firms in the country. House Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, a member of ALEC's board, said she is glad the companies pony up the cash.

(Because, as you know, state legislators, at least, don't make lots of money. We make $24,000 a year. And so I think it's important for legislators to be educated and work with legislators from around the country.)

That's also the assessment of Gov. Jan Brewer.

(Many elected officials travel because of the fact that they believe that they are in fact doing it on behalf of the state of Arizona. They're making contacts. They're bringing sometimes businesses back. They go to events because they're participating in that to raise the elevation of the state of Arizona.)

House Speaker Andy Tobin agreed that lawmakers are getting educated at ALEC conferences, albeit from a pro-business standpoint. But he said what they pay to fly legislators to the conferences, feed them and put them up should be considered a legitimate state expense, and not a gift. But that leaves the question: If the purpose is to educate lawmakers, why isn't the state picking up the tab.

(We're broke. I mean, there's no money. I think it's more appropriate that we have the private sector help fund a lot of these events because, Arizona especially, we've had budget problems for all these years.)

But the whole idea annoyed Sen. Ron Gould. He is the chairman of the Ethics Committee who has been looking into the question of whether lawmakers accepted tickets to sporting events, which generally is illegal. Gould also is inquiring whether legislators who took those free trips, which are legal, properly disclosed them on their public reports. But Gould said from his perspective, lawmakers should not be going to ALEC conferences on the dime of business interests.

(If those legislators want to go to those things they should pay for them out of their own pocket or pay for them with campaign funds, because campaign donations are limited. When you think about it, if an individual can give me only $410, why should a lobbyist be able to take me on a trip for $20,000? It puts the lobbyist at an unfair advantage over the citizen.)

But Tobin said some travel should be allowed, no matter who is paying. As an example, he cited a 2009 trip he took to a football game in Dallas paid for by the Fiesta Bowl/

(I didn't think it was a gift. I think what it is is that you're trying to do your job. I mean, could you imagine if the Fiesta Bowl said, 'You know, Andy, we're a little nervous we might lose the Bowl Championship Series because Texas built this facility and, oh, by the way, we've got a chance to see the Big 12 and it would be helpful if we had legislators to be a part of that to show them that we're all united,' and I told them 'no'?'')

Gould is unconvinced. He is weighing legislation for the upcoming session that would revamp the state's financial disclosure laws by saying, quite simply, public officials cannot take gifts. For Arizona Public Radio this is Howard Fischer.