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Ethics Chief Wants Online-Only Courses For Lawmakers

The state’s chief ethics guru wants lawmakers to complete required ethics trainings online instead of listening to him lecture yearly about rules on accepting gifts and reporting donations.

Drew Rawlins says the move would give lawmakers online access to the latest state ethics rules and flexibility to review those at their leisure instead of crowding into one chamber for a refresher course and a packet outlining ethical responsibilities every year.

But some lawmakers say they like the lecture hall setup to satisfy their annual training course requirements, which they fulfilled for 2012 Thursday.

“It’s always good to revisit the core principals in the code. Everybody’s busy,” said Mark Norris, the Senate majority leader. “This wasn’t difficult today to all get together to get the handouts again, to hear the words.”

“That didn’t take long. It didn’t hurt anybody,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Old Hickory. “I think I’d rather do it up here.”

State law says the ethics commission “shall offer an annual current issues course for members of the General Assembly,” but doesn’t specify whether that class can be held online. Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he’d like to make that change going into 2013, but wasn’t sure whether he’d need the Legislature’s OK.

The law is nuanced, but lawmakers are banned from accepting meals or other gifts worth more than $55 from lobbyists or their employers, such as a private company or union. That figure that goes up annually relative to the consumer price index. Some other meals and gifts are also banned, depending on specific circumstances.

Rawlins’ half-hour presentation before lawmakers — which also satisfied ethics training for lobbyists and employers of lobbyists — covered the state’s ban on receiving gifts of value, due dates for the latest round of campaign disclosures and the 10-day limit lawmakers have to return or pay for a gift before the exchange is considered an ethics law violation.

Each member of the General Assembly attending the joint ethics training in the House of Representatives received a 63-page packet on ethics laws ranging from whether lawmakers can accept gifts from longtime friends who are registered lobbyists to whether it’s OK for lobbyists to pay for lawmakers’ meals.

Ethics bills aren’t high on the Legislature’s agenda this year, and neither is the desire to revisit the duties of the commission — whose records of complaints are kept secret by law, a transparency issue reported on last year by TNReport.

Lawmakers have 25 ethics bills in the queue right now, four of which passed during last year’s legislative session. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he doesn’t see lawmakers pushing too hard in the way of new ethics laws this year.

“I haven’t seen anything on that,” he said.