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Tue., Dec. 4, 2012

Editorial: Legislators should do more than study ethics

Legislators in Idaho will have to attend a training class on ethics, but if history is any judge, they won’t have to worry about being tested. Or, they could surprise the public by adopting independent oversight and other common-sense reforms after class is dismissed.

That would be the best outcome. The worst outcome would be an ostentatious display of concern that covers inaction.

Under the plan, newly elected legislators will get ethics training next week. When the Legislature convenes, all lawmakers will be put through a day of training. But given the working definition of “ethical” used by legislative leaders in the past, they may need more than a day to unlearn their misguided views.

Here’s a sneak peek at the correct answers to some ethical questions. Should you disclose financial information and personal connections? Yes. Should you avoid direct conflicts of interest? Yes. Should you immediately capitalize on your legislative status once you’ve left office? No. Should your fellow classmates grade your ethics tests? No.

Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, suggested in a Spokesman-Review article that he understands the need for reforms, saying, “I think we do need to look at some changes in the statutes.” However, he added, “But at the same time, that isn’t going to do it either. It’s a character issue.”

The answer is to do both. Make the statutory changes that mandate ethical acts and hold training sessions that explain why those of good character shouldn’t object. For some lawmakers, this will be obvious. But for others, particularly those who have long defended the “trust us” position, the training is overdue.

Last January, the Legislature formed an ethics group to look at the possibility of four changes after a series of embarrassing news articles. First, public officials would be required to disclose their finances so possible conflicts could be identified. Second, a waiting period of one year would be required between when public officials could resign and take jobs lobbying their former colleagues. Third, protections for government whistle-blowers would be established. Fourth, an independent ethics commission would be formed to rule on possible violations.

But discussions broke down along partisan lines.

So Idaho is one of the few states without either the disclosure requirement or an independent ethics panel. Some legislators have suggested they wouldn’t have been elected if they weren’t trusted, as if voters were somehow privy to information lawmakers have refused to disclose. In fact, in states like Idaho, which has one-party rule, strong ethics laws are an especially important protection against going easy on friends.

Disclosure. Transparency. Independent oversight. These are elementary concepts. At least now legislative leaders have conceded they need to be taught. But if lawmakers don’t follow through with statutory changes, they will be given another “Incomplete.”

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

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