Here's the upshot of a much-ballyhooed state ethics law set to take effect Jan. 1: Lobbyists can still give lawmakers unlimited sums, but the average Oregonian better think twice about treating any public employee to so much as a movie ticket.

In Oregon legislators' attempt to police themselves and reduce lobbyists' influence, they have effectively detonated a neutron bomb to kill a mosquito—while conveniently ignoring the stagnant, murky waters where the larvae thrive.

After the Legislature passed Senate Bill 10 in June, House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland) said: "When our constituents see us receive exotic vacations and expensive dinners, they wonder if their interests are really being served here. They wonder if their voice is as important as someone giving a lavish gift. Today, we're putting an end to that."

Public-sector lawyers and ethics experts say, however, that if the sweeping, 41-page law goes into effect as scheduled next month, it could outlaw innocent behavior and needlessly complicate the lives of more than 170,000 Oregonians classified by law as "public officials." That number includes school teachers, volunteer firefighters and even board volunteers.

The bottom line, says SB 10's broad range of critics, is that it will do little to fix the root cause of ethical flaps, such as trips by former House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village) on lobbyists' dimes or Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) using campaign funds to pay for car insurance.

SB 10 is lawmakers' response to a series of embarrassing, undeclared lobbyist-paid Hawaiian vacations and other goodies bestowed on their legislative colleagues. That response makes several changes in current ethics laws: The new law bans "entertainment" of public officials by anyone who might have a "legislative or administrative interest" unless the entertainment is incidental to another event. In other words, no more front-row Trail Blazers tickets.

It also lowers the maximum allowed value of a gift from $100 to $50. And it expands the definition of "gift" to include "food and beverage consumed in the presence of the donor." That means no more big bar tabs at Salem watering holes, such as DaVinci's, or lavish steak dinners at capital haunts, such as Morton's Steak House.

The bill also requires lobbyists and public officials to file quarterly—rather than annual—reports with the state ethics commission.

Not surprisingly, lobbyists hate the new rules. In October, a group called the Center for Free Speech, which represents lobbyists, sought an injunction against the law in Marion County Circuit Court, arguing it violates Oregonians' right to free speech and fails to define key terms.

Circuit Judge Joseph Guimond plans to rule on the center's request for an injunction against the new law by year's end.

But more surprisingly, plenty of good-government advocates also find reasons for concern.

"I never thought the ban on entertainment was a good idea," says Janice Thompson, director of the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy Reform Oregon. "It's just overly broad."

Consider these examples: A parent works for a company that might do business with a school district. He invites the son of his child's teacher on a family outing to the movies. Under the new ban on entertainment, the parent could be forbidden to buy a $10 movie ticket for the teacher's child if the parent has an "administrative or legislative interest" in the school district.

"That parent probably can't buy the child a ticket because the entertainment ban applies to family members of public officials, too," says Ron Bersin, director of the state ethics commission. "The largest effect this law could have is everyday interactions, rather than legislative-lobbyist issues."

Bersin and a group of lobbyists and public-sector lawyers have begun trying to wrestle the law into a set of administrative rules. Among their tasks: trying to define such terms as "entertainment" and "administrative or legislative interest," and figuring out how to keep key public employees honest without strangling small-town volunteers, such as unpaid school board members, in red tape.

Thompson says SB 10 left gigantic issues unaddressed, regardless of the pending lawsuit or the outcome of public hearings Jan. 18 in Salem on the administrative rules.

Although SB 10 toughens rules on tens of thousands of public officials who never went to lobbyist-sponsored luaus or were showered with corporate bling, it does nothing to close the most gaping loophole.

Specifically, lawmakers continue to enjoy freedom from any limits on campaign contributions they collect. Oregon is one of only five states that has no restrictions. Second, candidates and elected officials continue to have enormous latitude in how they spend those contributions. Such freedom has, in the past, allowed officials to spend contributions on home renovations, car insurance and strippers.

So, while the new law means a lobbyist may only buy a lawmaker $50 worth of food and drinks annually and may not "entertain" the lawmaker at all, the lobbyist can write the lawmaker as many checks as the lawmaker can deposit. "The SB 10 limits are practically meaningless and allow all public officeholders to receive unlimited money in campaign contributions—even if they never intend to run for office again," says campaign reform advocate Dan Meek. "The money can be used to pay for lavish vacations, Blazer tickets or even an apartment in Salem."

FACTS:

The Center for Free Speech is represented by lawyer John DiLorenzo, who previously triumphed over a 1994 ballot measure limiting campaign contributions, and former legislative counsel Greg Chaimov.

The House vote on SB 10 was 33-26; the Senate vote 25-4.