MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

February 20, 2014

Lawmakers get free trips that they don't have to reveal

Disclosure rule doesn’t apply to nonprofit groups

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Several Oklahoma legislators accepted expenses-paid trips to Miami and Las Vegas from a group that wants to change the way the U.S. elects a president, but because the travel was sponsored by a nonprofit group, rather than traditional lobbyists, there’s no requirement for the lawmakers to disclose the trips to the public.

FairVote, which wants states to allocate electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes nationally, extended invitations to legislators to attend seminars to learn more about the proposal. Another one is set for next month in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

One House member and two state senators, including one who sponsored a bill to change Oklahoma’s law, told The Associated Press they were among the Oklahoma legislators who attended the seminars. All three said the trips didn’t influence their position on the bill, which passed the Senate last week on a 28-18 vote and went to the House.

“To me it’s a good way to actually sit down and discuss issues uninterrupted away from the Capitol building,” said state Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Yukon, the Senate author of the bill. “I understand some people’s concerns, but they’re not junkets. We’re there to work. We sat there the entire time and discussed the issue.”

Also attending were Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, and Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman. Sparks and Johnson support the bill, but Newell said he opposes it.

Because the trips were not funded by lobbyists or the companies that employ them, there is no requirement that the lawmakers disclose the travel and lodging, said Lee Slater, the executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

A legislator who did not make a trip said the travel and lodging should be disclosed.

“It’s a mighty inappropriate loophole that needs to be closed,” said Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, a longtime critic of the influence that lobbyists and the companies they represent have at the Capitol. “It’s the lack of transparency that concerns me, the fact that very few in the public knew these trips were even going on.”

Johnson said he attended a fall seminar in Las Vegas, and Newell and Sparks went to an event in Miami. Another seminar is scheduled for March in St. Croix, but FairVote’s Executive Director Rob Richie said that trip may be canceled.

“We put out invites, but it’s not clear if it will happen,” Richie said.

FairVote is a Maryland-based 501(c)(3) that supports several election reforms, including using the national popular vote to determine the president.

Under the bill, Oklahoma would join nine other states and the District of Columbia that have passed legislation to award electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The intent, its backers say, would ensure that every vote counts, not just those in traditional “swing states” that influence the outcome of presidential elections.

The state GOP opposes the bill. Dave Weston, the state party chairman, noted George W. Bush would have lost to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election if the national popular vote had been in effect.

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