April 8, 2009 in Opinion

Our View: Idaho’s lack of disclosure sends wrong message

 

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The Idaho Legislature looked like it would finally overcome perennial opposition to personal financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, but House Speaker Lawerence Denney has decided to sit on the bill. The Senate passed the measure unanimously Thursday. Gov. Butch Otter is eager to sign it.

House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, was skeptical at first but didn’t find the bill objectionable upon reading it.

“It’s a lot more innocuous than I thought it was,” he said.

The bill introduces requirements that are typical for public officials: an annual report of income sources and employers of state elected officials or legislators and their spouses, plus a listing of major Idaho assets. No dollar amounts are required. Sources of income below $10,000 are exempt. The same information would have to be supplied by candidates within 30 days of filing for office.

If reasons for disclosure aren’t obvious, think back to the 2005 scandal that resulted in the resignation of Sen. Jack Noble, R-Kuna. He introduced a bill that would have made his convenience store, located across the street from an elementary school, eligible for a state liquor license. He did not disclose how he might have benefited.

Four years later, Idaho is still one of only four states without such disclosure requirements. The Chicago-based Better Government Association recently assessed state open government laws, and Idaho tied for last place in the conflict-of-interest category. Washington state was first.

In 1974, Idaho’s Sunshine Law was enacted when 77 percent of voters approved a ballot measure. While that law calls for transparency in lobbying and campaign finances, it does not require lawmakers to disclose their personal finances.

But it isn’t difficult to discern that the public has a huge desire for see-through government. Trust in government is low. People want to know that lawmakers are working in the public’s interest, not their own.

Lawmakers can address this skepticism by showing that they have nothing to hide as they do their duties. In the Senate debate, some legislators worried that disclosure would drive away good and decent people from public service. But if they are truly reputable, they shouldn’t balk at disclosing where their money comes from.

It might just be that Denney is holding the bill hostage, so that he can garner support for other measures. But this issue has been debated for years and has failed to get to the finish line. If that were to happen again, the public’s logical interpretation would be that its leaders are afraid of laws that open them to routine scrutiny.


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