BOISE – When Mitch Toryanski was a West Point cadet, the definition of ethics was clear: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do. The penalty was expulsion.
Now that he’s a state senator serving on the Idaho Legislature’s bipartisan working group on ethics, it’s a bit more complex. “What kind of system do we want to ensure integrity?” Toryanski asked. “I don’t think anyone knows what we’re going to do, but hey, the conversation’s started.”
The working group, with four senators and four representatives, equally divided between parties, has been meeting twice a week for the past four weeks to try to find common ground on how to establish an independent ethics commission for Idaho, something 41 states including Washington have, but Idaho lacks.
Legislative leaders have also expressed hope that the group can open the way for debate on other ethics reforms this year, including Idaho’s first financial disclosure requirements for public officials; a “revolving-door” law requiring a year’s break before lawmakers or other public officials could go directly into lobbying; and a whistle-blower hotline for public employees to call in complaints.
“Most of this first part has just been doing research,” said state Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. “What would fit in the statutes and the culture of Idaho? And what do we have in place now?”
Said state Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, “We’ve been able to review other states and get an idea of what they’re doing. … We’re about halfway through the process, I think. We’re just about done with the fact-gathering.”
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “We were hoping for faster progress,” but added, “We have full confidence that our work group members can develop meaningful ethics reform this session.”
Most of the working group members agreed.
“I think we’re making good progress,” said state Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls. Asked if he thinks anything will come out of the effort this year, Mortimer responded, “Absolutely.”
The eight-member group has been meeting for at least an hour twice a week, late on Wednesday afternoons and early on Friday mornings. Members have taken turns chairing the meetings, and everyone’s getting a chance to lead.
“We all consider ourselves equal members,” Stennett said. “Because of that … it probably isn’t going to go as fast as everyone probably would like it to.”
State Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, said, “We have agreed on a few things,” as far as how best to structure an independent ethics commission.
Barbieri said, “I think we needed to examine it, given the last couple of years.” But, he said, “The question of whether Idaho can afford a full-on new bureaucracy is pressing on me. … I don’t think it’s necessary for us to have some consensus or agree. I think the responsibility is to gather as much information as we can and get it back to the leadership, and see how the leadership wants to handle it.”
State Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I think we’re getting to know pretty quickly where our lines are drawn.”
Ethics reform was a high-profile issue at the start of this year’s Idaho legislative session but has moved largely under the radar as the working group has held weeks of discussions.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Democratic Party and others have continued to criticize lawmakers for not having enacted ethics reforms. “It does complicate things,” said Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise. “That … sure doesn’t help with any kind of constructive process, while we’re trying to conduct business.”
Toryanski said even outside the working group, “Ideas are being floated – nobody’s waiting on this group to come up with something.”
Nine bills have been introduced so far this session proposing ethics reforms; six of those were personal bills from Democratic lawmakers on everything from financial disclosure to revolving-door laws to campaign finances. Others are in the works.
State Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, said her background is in the corporate world, so she appreciates taking time for “due diligence.” She said, “I am very hopeful that the process will yield great results. The good thing about the process is it’s looking forward – it’s looking for how we’re going to hold ourselves accountable in the future and regain, where it’s lost, the trust of our constituents.”
King said when the working group started meeting, House Speaker Lawerence Denney told her he hoped it would result in an independent ethics commission bill that he and other legislative leaders of both parties could co-sponsor. “I’m an optimist. I’m a Democrat in Idaho, I’m an optimist,” King said. “I think we’re going to have a bill.”