Editorial: House should try again on independent ethics investigations

March 31, 2014 

— HOUSE LEADERS’ decision last week to send the Senate’s omnibus ethics reform bill back to committee rather than amend it on the floor slows the process down but greatly enhances the chance that the Legislature might pass a bill worth passing.

Unfortunately, “enhanced” is a relative term. Given all the “the session is practically over; we can’t possibly get anything else done” talk around the State House, the odds still are long that lawmakers will end this two-year session with anything significant to show for one of their top to-do items.

That makes it all the more important for people to let their legislators know that they expect significant changes to an ethics law that lets legislators police their own compliance with the law, provides too little enforcement and sets penalties too low to serve as a deterrent, leaves too much open to interpretation and invites anonymous campaign spending. It also makes it important for the reform groups that have been pushing these changes to double-down on their efforts.

The most glaring shortcoming in the bills passed by the House and Senate is independent enforcement. Senators rejected the House proposal to turn enforcement over to a joint legislative ethics committee, made up of senators, representatives and non-legislators appointed by legislators, and replaced it with … nothing. House Republican Leader Bruce Bannister, who chairs the subcommittee that meets Wednesday to review the Senate changes to the bill, says he wants to find some other approach that the House — and senators — might support.

He could start with the idea many senators support of allowing an independent entity to investigate complaints but letting the House and Senate ethics committees retain final say over punishment. Senate negotiations broke down over what that entity should be.

A reasonable option — and we’re sure there are others that also should be explored — would be to have the Senate and House appoint non-legislators to an independent investigative entity. That’s far short of what we ought to have, but it’s far better than what we have now and better than what the House passed. If representatives try this, they need to spell out a limited set of causes for removal — malfeasance, misfeasance, absenteeism, criminality and the like — and restrict members to a single term.

Although giving the ethics panel some independence is the most important improvement that Mr. Bannister’s panel could make, it’s certainly not the only one.

The Senate bill increases criminal penalties for the most serious ethics violations, which should make elected officials think twice before violating the law. But most elected officials don’t commit the most serious violations, so we also need to raise the fines for violating other parts of the law, and kick candidates off the ballot if they refuse to pay their ethics fines. The Senate bill also requires officials to file the bank statements of their campaign accounts, to help ethics watchdogs find illegal donations and expenditures. But watchdogs don’t have time to review all those reports, so a smart amendment would require them to conduct random audits of, say, 10 percent of reports a year.

Whatever representatives do, they need to do it in consultation with senators, since procedural rules mean that whatever the House passes will be in a take-it-or-leave-it form when the bill goes to conference committee — and the full Senate has made it clear that it’s comfortable leaving it before swallowing a bill it doesn’t like.

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