SALEM, Ore. The Oregon Supreme Court last week upheld a $50-a-year limit on gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers and other public officials.
Lobbyists can offer gifts greater than $50, the court said, but officeholders cannot accept them.
The ruling keeps intact a key part of an Oregon ethics-reform law that the 2007 Legislature passed following unflattering reports about wining and dining of lawmakers.
Veteran lobbyist Fred VanNatta had argued that gifts from lobbyists to public officials should be unlimited because they amount to expressions protected by free-speech rights.
The Supreme Court agreed in the Dec. 31 ruling.
But, at the same time, the court also said there’s no constitutional problem with placing a limit on the gifts that public officials can accept, because receiving a gift doesn’t amount to a political expression.
The Legislature approved the ethics-reform law after a public outcry over a junket to a Hawaiian luxury resort for several top lawmakers, paid for by the beer and wine industry.
As a result, lawmakers who could once dine out on the lobbyist’s dime were limited to accepting no more than $50 a year in food, gifts or anything else from a lobbyist.
Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt said last week’s ruling “validated” the 2007 law.
“We accomplished what we needed to accomplish: getting the gifts out of the legislative process,” Hunt said.
VanNatta’s attorney, John DiLorenzo, had argued that the $50 limit was too restrictive because it prevents lobbyists from providing gifts that serve the public interest, such as taking legislators on fact-finding missions to learn about issues.
DiLorenzo said the court’s ruling was “illusory” because it found that lobbyists’ offers of gifts can’t be restricted but also upheld limits on what officials can accept.
“The scenario is tantamount to allowing citizens to advertise on the radio but jamming the airwaves to prohibit the audience from listening,” DiLorenzo said.
Dan Meek, a Portland public interest attorney who filed a friend-of-the-court brief to support the gift limit, welcomed the ruling.
He also said, though, that the ruling won’t have a lot of practical effect without a state limit on campaign contributions. Clients that lobbyists represent can always increase their contributions to public officials, Meek said.
“Anything the lobbyists could do with gifts can also be done with campaign contributions,” he said.