Editorial: Idaho session that failed to create ethics guidelines ends accordingly

A legislative session that began with the promise of introducing long-overdue ethics guidelines ended with the Idaho Senate tossing a veil over the process and the House doing absolutely nothing.

The hang-up continues to be the misguided notion that an orderly, transparent and independent process is an affront to the integrity of elected officials. The logic, or lack thereof, would appear to be this: Voters wouldn’t elect them if they thought they were unethical.

This suggests that voters have the details of every politician’s background and business dealings at their fingertips before they fill out their ballots. They don’t, of course, and part of the reason is that lawmakers are insulted – or pretend to be – when asked.

This circular argument has brought the Legislature to a stalemate on three reforms that were sought this year: strong financial disclosure requirements, a “timeout” between when an official works for the government and then lobbies the government, and an independent commission that oversees the ethics process.

A bipartisan panel studied each proposal but couldn’t reach agreement. The split on whether to introduce nonpartisanship to the ethics process was entirely partisan.

The public does not hold political bodies in high regard. It would be a mistake – albeit a convenient one – for lawmakers to interpret a vote for them as a vote of confidence for government in general.

Forty-one other states have recognized this reality and have set up independent oversight. But in Idaho, independence was the deal-breaker.

The Legislature invites suspicion when it shuns transparency or won’t allow an arm’s length review. Furthermore, lawmakers have repeatedly displayed their tin ear on this topic. For example, Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, tried to use his status as a lawmaker to avoid paying taxes, but his colleagues struggled mightily over the question of whether they should remove him from a tax committee, which they eventually did.

Idaho lawmakers have decided to make this more difficult than it needs to be, and last Thursday they breached the public trust once more by deciding to focus on the embarrassment of disclosure.

Senate Republicans introduced new rules on the final day of the session – written in private – that grants initial ethics complaints a cloak of secrecy. The public will only know about a complaint after four out of six assigned members agree that there might be something to it.

If members vote along party lines – that is, 3-3 – the public will never hear about it. It’s easy to imagine the deal-making that could arise from this arrangement. “We’ll clamp down on yours, if you clamp down on ours.”

To top it off, the Senate adopted this rule on a party-line vote.

If nothing else, this was a fitting ending to the Legislature’s failure to once again adopt ethical guidelines that can pass the eye-roll test. It’s inexcusable that the public will have to wait until next year for actual progress.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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