We're getting closer to meaningful ethics reform

info@islandpacket.comMay 12, 2013 

Slowly but surely, we're getting closer to substantive ethics law reform, and it's due in no small part to the people who are keeping tabs on what lawmakers are up to and crying foul when they don't do enough or in some instances go backward.

That was the case when the House bill, now in the Senate, decriminalized ethics violations.

The House corrected some of the bill's problems before it headed to the Senate, and senators are making their own changes -- most for the better.

But there are still significant issues to hammer out, starting with enforcement. It makes little difference what the rules are or what the punishment for breaking them is if they aren't adequately enforced.

There must be independent oversight of lawmakers' actions if the public is to have confidence in the outcome. Neither the House nor the Senate has reached that goal.

The House bill creates a 16-member joint legislative committee, made up of four House members, four senators and eight members of the public, chosen by lawmakers. The latter is a step in the right direction, but as one critic noted, lay people tend to follow the lead of lawmakers on committees like this, and that's not what we need.

Senators want to overhaul the state Ethics Commission, making it an eight-member panel appointed by the governor and lawmakers that would investigate complaints against lawmakers and determine whether there was probable cause a violation had occurred. Criminal matters would be forwarded to the attorney general's office, The Associated Press reports.

Unfortunately, they would keep House and Senate committees in place, and those panels would make the final call on whether legislators have broken the law.

Lawmakers say independent oversight of their activities would require changing the state constitution. They cite a clause that states each chamber is responsible for disciplining its members.

But if that is stopping them from establishing truly independent oversight, they can change that. Put the question on the 2014 ballot and ask voters whether they want independent oversight for legislators, as is the case with all other public officials, We bet the answer will be a resounding "yes."

The House bill also raises the threshold for finding someone guilty of a violation by inserting the word "willfully." It shouldn't take a willful violation to warrant punishment. Ignorance is no excuse. Officials should know the law and their responsibilities under it.

Senators also are pushing tougher penalties for violations, including making it felony to use a public office for personal gain of $10,000 or more. And they want not only lawmakers to report private sources of income, but also their spouses.

The bill, as amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now headed to the full Senate. Time is running out on this legislative session, and the budget still must be dealt with. Lawmakers have come a long way on ethics reform, but they still have a long way to go.

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