Legislature is inches away from total failure on ethics reform

05/08/2014 9:56 AM

05/08/2014 9:58 AM

I’m very close to saying the Legislature needs to just stop talking about ethics, because it’s increasingly clear that anything lawmakers manage to pass this year will be far short of what anyone other than a legislator would call “ethics reform” — and that it might very well weaken the current, inadequate law.

I’m not there yet, because I want to reread t he Senate version of the bill, perhaps to find it has some good points I had forgotten about. I’m also holding out hope that somebody in the House will put up some responsible amendments to the ethics bill, and the House will actually vote for them, when it takes up the latest so-called reform, possibly as early as today.

It’s a dum spiro spero sort of hope, mind you, after the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the slap-in-your-face joke of a strike-and-insert amendment to the legislation.

That amendment creates an even more convoluted and I’m pretty sure less acceptable “independent” investigative agency than the House approved last year to review (but not rule on) ethics complaints. Like the House’s 2013 version, this new panel includes legislators, which should be a non-starter.

The amendment also takes back the limited income-amount disclosure that the House had approved last year. Most reasonable reformers long ago agreed to settle for lawmakers telling us where they got their income without telling us how much they got, except for a few special cases. But after the Senate refused to go along with any amounts, the House Judiciary Committee backed away from that as well.

There are other problems with the new investigative mechanism and rules about how legislators can use campaign funds in the committee amendment, but it’s really tedious to go into them right now, because it’s not going to do much good to fix them if the Legislature won’t fix the existential problem with the legislation.

Which is this: The primary, important-above-all-other-things reforms that we need from the Legislature are 1) putting an independent entity in charge of at least investigating if not enforcing legislative ethics, 2) requiring legislators to tell us where their income comes from (and in at least some of the more prone-to-conflicts areas how much income that is) and 3) closing some loopholes in the campaign finance law.

The Senate bill and the House Judiciary Committee amendment appear to do some good on item No. 3. The same cannot be said for the other two areas. Today, the House can change that. Or not.

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