Cindi Ross Scoppe

Must-do on ethics: independent, transparent oversight; significant income disclosure

A crowd of legislators and lobbyists packs the lobby between the House and Senate.
A crowd of legislators and lobbyists packs the lobby between the House and Senate. jblake@thestate.com

LEGISLATORS NEED to tell us where they get their income, and an independent entity needs to investigate their compliance with the ethics law. Today, we are much closer than we have ever been to getting both of those ethics reforms.

House and Senate leaders I’ve talked to express hope that the House will make changes to the bills the Senate passed nearly three weeks ago, rather than simply insisting on the bills the House passed more than a year ago. The goal would be to come up with changes acceptable to the House that the Senate might agree to rather than sending the bills to conference committee.

That could be safer, because it would cut in half the number of times the Senate has to vote on each bill. And with just nine legislative days before the end of the session, simply getting to those votes is becoming increasingly difficult. Even if no one wants to sabotage ethics bills, they can get caught up in chess games senators are playing in order to kill other bills.

But skipping a conference committee is only safer and better if what the House passes includes the reforms we need.

On independent investigations, what we need is real independence, and transparency. On income-disclosure, what we need is meaningful disclosure.

Sounds simple enough, but, oh my, the details.

Under both the House and Senate bills, a reconstituted State Ethics Commission would investigate complaints against legislators. If it decides that charges should be brought, it sends that recommendation to the House or Senate Ethics committee, which then decides whether the legislator violated the law and, if so, sets the punishment.

Under the House bill, the entire investigation would be made public. Under the Senate bill, the Ethics Commission would give the legislative committee “a copy of all relevant reports, evidence, and testimony considered by the commission,” but only the complaint, response, hearing notice and the commission’s recommendations would be made public. In other words, we would know that the independent commission thought charges should be brought against a legislator, but we wouldn’t see the evidence.

That might not be a problem if the independent commission were handling the entire case. But letting legislators act as judge and jury over their colleagues only works if we get to see the details. Otherwise, the public will still worry that legislators are protecting fellow legislators.

The Senate bill has some paranoid extra provisions — requiring a three-quarters vote by the Ethics Commission to recommend charges, and making the Ethics Commission investigate further if the legislative committee disagrees with its recommendation. But the most important difference between the two bills is how much information is public, so it might be worth going along with those provisions if that’s the price for making sure we see all the evidence when the independent commission says a legislator should be charged.

One thing the House needs to give up is its bizarre, unworkable and almost certainly unconstitutional plan to put the judiciary under the jurisdiction of the new Ethics Commission.

The House bill also includes several changes that probably would be good — clarifying which cases go to the Ethics Commission and which go directly to the attorney general, for instance, and adjusting penalties based on how much money was involved in the violation. But those aren’t central to the debate, and it wouldn’t be worth risking other reforms to try to pass them.

The detail differences are even more daunting in the income-disclosure bills, so here it’s important to return to first principles: The reason we need to know where legislators get their income is so we can see where there might be conflicts between their interests and our interests.

That should be simple, too: have them report everything they report on their income tax returns; that gets us around the current Ethics Commission’s belief that money from contracts isn’t “income,” and sweeps away all sorts of other questions. Unfortunately, both the House and the Senate have carved out their own lists of exceptions: You don’t have to report Social Security income, for instance, or money from a brokerage account. Many of the exceptions would make sense if officials had to report amounts, but they generally wouldn’t, so the exceptions need to be kept to a minimum.

What should be kept to zero is exceptions to the current requirement that officials report not just the source but also the amount of money they receive from government, lobbyists and lobbyists’ employers.

A Senate provision exempts income from “commercial transactions in which the fair market value of goods transferred or services rendered is paid.” I think senators were trying to avoid, say, requiring a fast-food restaurant owner to keep tabs on every lobbyist who shows up at the drive-through. But the way this is written, it’s easy to argue that practically any exchange of money was at “fair-market” prices, and therefore exempt from disclosure.

That has to be fixed, or else we could actually end up with less information than we are getting now. And that is not a place we can allow ourselves to end up.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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