My column this week is relevant to events today at the Capitol — budget hearings include a modest request for additional money from the state Ethics Commission.
My column began with a whopper of a mistake: I predicted defeat for Issue 3, the ethics/term limits/legislative pay amendment. Wrong. Voters went for a measure that provides some relief for legislators but also puts in place some important changes in ethics law, chiefly a ban on lawmakers accepting anything of value from lobbyists and a ban on direct corporate contributions to political campaigns. These are good things. They are sure to increase work for the already overworked and understaffed Ethics Commission., which occupies woefully inadequate offices where commission executive sessions are just about impossible to fully close.
With voters now solidly in favor of stronger ethics, the legislature should give the tools to the regulatory body that enforces the rules.
The Ethics Commission has actually had declining operational support. It needs a small sum, about $25,000, for better quarters. The agency is also asking for three new positions, two attorneys and an investigator.
It’s critical. The Commission is too reactive now, responding primarily to a rising number of complaints in increasingly partisan times. If it could routinely review filings and provide guidance, some small errors that turn into long-term corrupt practices could be avoided. How did Paul Bookout go so many years without anybody noticing the vast amounts spent by an unopposed candidate on unitemized expenditures? Lack of time and staff is how.
My column also discussed the need for even more ethics reform than provided in the amendment. Independence for the commission from legislative money control would be a good place to start. Consideration of a way to avoid partisan appearances would be another. In its beginning, though not for long, all ethics commissioners were appointed by Democrats. Soon, all appointees will hold positions thanks to Republicans. They are appointed by governor, lt. governor, attorney general and leaders of the House and Senate.
UPDATE: The Ethics Commission’s request got a favorable review in the budget committee hearing this morning. But there are many more rounds to go, including a separate review of the personnel requests. It’s a start.