BOISE – After a string of ethical lapses and questions about Idaho lawmakers’ conduct, new lawmakers will face something unprecedented when they arrive in Boise for their organizational session next week: formal ethics training.
That’s not all. When the Legislature convenes its 2013 session the second week of January, business will pause on the session’s third day as all lawmakers – veterans and newcomers – are put through an hourslong ethics training session.
“Obviously, we’ve had some issues with breaches of ethical behavior over the last few years,” said Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. Hill said he and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, decided to institute the training, and a panel of legislative leaders approved it.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “I applaud it.”
But he noted that a bipartisan working group of senators and representatives met for weeks during the 2012 legislative session without success, trying to reach consensus on new, tougher ethics laws. Those proposals included an independent ethics commission – which only Idaho and eight other states lack – to financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, which only Idaho and two other states don’t have.
Said Rusche, “I still think there’s a long way to go.”
The list of ethical lapses is long, ranging from matters that barely raised eyebrows to several prompting full ethics investigations.
In June, for example, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, repaid $890 to the state for a taxpayer-funded end-of-session letter she sent out to Republicans in her former and new legislative districts touting her record and thanking supporters as she sought re-election.
The previous June, Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, was admonished and acknowledged she erred after her intern sent a mass email from her legislative account seeking ideas to support a school-reform referendum effort.
In February, House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, persuaded the House to pass his bill to shut off parking meters around the state Capitol during the legislative session, saying a constituent brought him the issue, but not revealing that his 24-year-old son was issued numerous parking tickets in the area and had his car towed on the first day of the 2012 legislative session for unpaid tickets.
No ethics action was taken. Denney backed Palmer, saying, “I don’t think that crosses the ethical line.” The bill died in the Senate.
Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, was the subject of three ethics complaints in 2011 and 2010 over his ongoing fight against paying back state and federal income taxes, his repeated invoking of legislative privilege to win delays in his tax cases and his illegal logging of state school endowment land in 1996 to build his log home in Athol, for which he never paid an outstanding judgment. Hart lost his bid for re-election.
In 2007, Denney came under fire after he recommended that a California developer dump its lobbyist, with whom Denney had a political dispute, and instead hire a former member of House GOP leadership who had just switched to lobbying.
Idaho has no required waiting period between legislative or government service and lobbying; a one-year waiting period was among the bills the bipartisan working group examined this year but never proposed.
Hill said lawmakers will benefit from a better understanding of ethics laws and requirements and reminders that the public holds them to high standards.
“We need to be inspired to just be our best selves,” he said.
The training will include a session next week for new lawmakers – there are a record-tying 44 of those this year – led by Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Then, on Jan. 9, all legislators will gather in the Capitol Auditorium for an ethics training session from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Hill said he hopes the ethics training sessions will set the tone for this year’s legislative session. “We want the legislators to know it’s important,” he said, “and also to let the people know that we know it’s important.”