Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Income `ranges' give lawmakers a place to hide

COLUMBUS - Until 1994 state legislators in Ohio were required to disclose the source of any income they received over $500 - but not the amount.

That changed after a scandal broke in which several lawmakers accepted money for giving speeches or attending social events.

Former House Speaker Vern Riffe, a Democrat, and then-Senate President Stanley Aronoff, a Republican, were convicted of accepting thousands of dollars without disclosing the amounts on their annual statements.

The legislature in 1994 approved an ethics bill, which Gov. George Voinovich signed into law, that banned so-called “honoraria.” It also required legislators to disclose all sources and amounts of income within ranges.

Those ranges run from “A” - $0 to $999 - all the way to “F” - $100,000 or more.

The annual financial disclosure statements are filed with the office of the legislative inspector general.

Jim Rogers, the agency's executive director, said his office uses the income section on the statement to try to track if legislators are doing anything improper with a lobbyist or a firm doing business with the state.

“The amount of money they make really doesn't mean anything to me,” he said.

Legislators said the ranges offer some privacy when they earn outside income or disclose the income of a spouse.

And if a constituent wants to know, he can learn freshman state Rep. Thomas Patton (R., Strongsville) received at least $75,000 in sales from two firms, Meritech Blue and THEM, Inc., last year, but Mr. Patton said his income was below $100,000.

As the legislature prepares to increase taxes at the time the federal government is cutting taxes, The Blade used the most conservative method to determine that at least one of every four legislators earns at least $100,000.

After obtaining legislative salaries, the lowest numbers from the ranges were added. As a result, the number could be higher than 33.

State Rep. Michelle Schneider (R., Cincinnati) listed four sources of income at level “F” - including earnings from a Cincinnati nursing home and earnings from two S corporations.

But that doesn't mean she's the wealthiest legislator, since a legislator who lists one source of income at “F” could make millions of dollars without the public knowing. Ms. Schneider is chairman of the House Human Services and Aging Committee.

State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) and House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said they would support a change in state law to narrow the income ranges on the disclosure statements so a more precise picture is available.

“If you shine a bright light on the backgrounds of all legislators, then that gives the constituents more information to vote for someone that they think reflects their interests,” said Mr. Redfern. He said he made $5,000 last year by building greenhouses, in addition to his $58,017 salary.

The financial disclosure statements also are skewed because legislators fill them out differently. State Reps. Barbara Sykes (D., Akron) and Nancy Hollister (R., Marietta) made the $100,000-plus club only because they included the income of their husbands.

They weren't required to do so, said Mr. Rogers. Legislators are required to disclose their spouse's income only if an employer makes it clear that the salary also benefits a legislator, said Tony Bledsoe, an attorney for the legislative inspector general.

The use of income ranges and varying interpretations among legislators of how income is disclosed is another example of how the legislature often is shrouded in secrecy, says Catherine Turcer, legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a consumer and environmental group.

Given that lawmakers legally can make decisions behind closed doors, there's a need for a way to link financial disclosure statements with more frequent campaign finance reports, lobbyist disclosure forms, and detailed lists on what gifts legislators are accepting and from whom, Ms. Turcer said.

Last month, the Center for Public Integrity released a three-month study on lobbying in the 50 states, finding that lobbying expenditures in 39 have increased from $160 million in 2000 to $715 million in 2002

The total in Ohio over the past two years is $1.2 million.

On a scale of 100, Ohio received a 67, in large part because the state doesn't require lobbyists to disclose their salary and other compensation, and their positions on bills.

Also, state law doesn't require lobbyists to include how much they've contributed to a candidate on the form in which they disclose how much they spend to entertain legislators. In fact, only five states - Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Rhode Island - require lobbyists to disclose their positions on bills.

“That kind of disclosure is particularly important because if you're trying to follow the money, if you don't know who supports it or who's against it, it's like playing connect the dots,” said Ms. Turcer. “There's an inherent problem with [Ohio's lobbyist reports]. When you go to look at the lobbyists' material, it's extremely frustrating.”

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