By Matt Viser, Globe Staff
House and Senate leaders today announced a compromise on ethics and campaign finance reform legislation, tightening Massachusetts' ethics laws after a series of high-profile scandals on Beacon Hill.
The legislation includes a ban on gifts to public employees, but it doesn't go as far as Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to criminalize all gifts to public employees.
Senate President Therese Murray has also relented on an earlier Senate proposal that would have weakened the state Ethics Commission. Under the new plan, the commission would stay in place and would gain some enforcement powers.
The gift ban has been a sticking point for weeks. The new plan will call for a ban on all gifts to public employees. It will be a civil offense if a public official accepts a gift valued at less than $1,000, and a criminal offense for gifts valued at more than $1,000. Patrick had wanted to criminalize gifts of any value.
The legislation would also ban the use of special campaign funds, which Patrick has used to skirt $500 campaign donation limits. Patrick established a special fund – called the Seventy-First Fund, since he is the state’s 71st governor – that allows him to get around the $500 state limit on individual contributions to candidates, by giving him the benefit of an additional $5,000, the maximum allowable to a political party.
Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo announced the proposal this afternoon at a State House news conference.
Patrick has been criticizing lawmakers for not acting sooner on ethics reform, and he has vowed to veto a proposed sales tax increase unless the Legislature first approves pension, ethics, and transportation overhauls that he finds acceptable.
Patrick has already signed new pension legislation, but has not yet said whether he would support the transportation plan approved by the Legislature last week.
The House and Senate plan to vote on the ethics bill tomorrow, and Patrick has until Monday to decide whether or not to veto the proposed sales tax increase, which would boost the tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.
Legislators have been pledging for months to overhaul state ethics laws, in an attempt to restore public trust in state government.
The Senate had two members resign last year, one of whom, Democratic Senator Dianne Wilkerson of Roxbury, was photographed by federal agents stuffing money into her bra -- an alleged payoff for her help in passing legislation. The other, Democratic Senator J. James Marzilli Jr. of Arlington, was indicted on charges of accosting four women in Lowell.
Earlier this month, former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly orchestrating a scheme that allowed him to pocket $57,000 in payments from a software company while he was using his office to make sure the company won state contracts.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.
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