FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — When a Kentucky legislative committee approved a bill to let liquor store owners transport alcohol across county lines, Wesley Morgan was pleased by the time and money he would save as the owner of four Liquor World outlets in the state.
But unlike most liquor store owners, Morgan has a direct say in whether the bill becomes law. As an elected state representative, he sponsored the bill. He voted to approve it as a member of a House regulations committee. Now, he's trying to sway House colleagues to pass that and six other bills he filed that would affect liquor store owners.
Morgan's legislation has raised questions about the ethics of part-time legislatures, where lawmakers make public policy decisions while holding down full-time jobs, often in the private sector.
Critics say bills like Morgan's abuse the public trust. They argue that lawmakers shouldn't be able to use their powerful positions to benefit their financial and business interests. But others, including Kentucky's Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover, said that's a benefit of a "citizen legislature" — experts can craft legislation affecting their industries.
Forty of the 50 state legislatures are part time, often leading lawmakers to have other jobs that can create a host of conflicts. In the Kentucky Senate, Republican Ralph Alvarado — a medical doctor — is promoting a bill that would reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits. And Republican state Rep. Adam Koenig, a real estate agent, has a bill aimed at reducing paperwork and costs when selling a condo. He said colleagues asked him to sponsor the bill because he "understands real estate."
"We've had insurance agents running insurance bills for years. You have Realtors running Realtor bills, auctioneers running auctioneering bills," Koenig said. "Why would I run a bill on medical review panels? Because we have a doctor who actually understands them."
But other lawmakers are uncomfortable voting on issues involving their businesses.
When the Kentucky House passed a bill exempting landscaping companies from providing workers compensation benefits in some cases, Republican Rep. Phillip Pratt abstained because he owns a landscaping company.
"It directly affected my business. That's why I abstained," said Pratt, who had no comment on Morgan's bills.
The Kentucky Constitution forbids lawmakers from voting on legislation in which they have a "personal or private interest." State courts, and the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, have interpreted that to mean insurance agents can vote on insurance bills and doctors can vote on medical bills, but only if the proposed legislation affects all insurance agents or doctors equally.
That's why in 2008, the commission said it was OK for then-Democratic state Sen. R.J. Palmer to vote on a bill to allow casino gambling at some horse racetracks, even though Palmer's employer owned one of those tracks. But in 2011, the commission fined another state representative $2,000 because he voted on a budget bill that spent taxpayer money on a construction project for which his company performed some of the work.
Morgan was elected in November to help Republicans gain a majority in the state House for the first time in nearly a century. As owner of four central Kentucky liquor stores, he said he ran in part to file bills that would break up liquor wholesalers' "monopoly" have in the state.
First, however, he asked the Legislative Ethics Commission for an informal advisory opinion on whether it was ethical to sponsor such legislation.
John Schaaf, the commission's executive director, wrote that Morgan's personal businesses "would clearly be affected by the changes you have proposed and may receive some benefit." But Schaaf said that because the changes would affect all liquor retailers equally, the state's code of legislative ethics "does not prohibit you from introducing, discussing, voting or otherwise supporting the bills."
"Just because that you have experience in an industry does not preclude you from working toward fixing that industry," said Morgan, who adds he is 66 and ready to sell his businesses and retire.
Watchdog groups disagree.
"I think his bill is for his own personal financial success," said Richard Beliles, state chairman of Common Cause Kentucky. "He should be representing his constituents and, at large, the public interest of the whole state."
Daniel Meyer, general counsel for the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Kentucky, said wholesalers don't have monopolies, but do have exclusive distribution agreements with suppliers. He declined to comment on Morgan's bills.