January 5, 2012 in Idaho

Idaho leaders ready to strengthen ethics laws

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

Idaho legislative leaders, from left, Sen. Edgar Malepeai, Sen. Brent Hill, Rep. Lawerence Denney and Rep. John Rusche
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Idaho legislative leaders from both parties say they favor new, stronger ethics laws for Idaho this year.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who in the past has single-handedly blocked new ethics laws, said he’s now ready to consider an independent ethics commission to oversee Idaho lawmakers. That’s something 41 states have, but Idaho lacks.

“I really don’t believe, as far as ethics goes, that it’s necessary, but perception is reality,” Denney said.

The Idaho House convened its ethics committee multiple times in the past year, mostly for complaints involving tax-protesting Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who also came under fire for his 1996 illegal harvest of logs from state school endowment lands. Hart gave up his seat on the House tax committee and his vice-chairmanship of the transportation committee to avoid further ethics sanctions; he apologized to the House in February.

Denney said people don’t necessarily believe that lawmakers are policing their own ethics. When they handle the issues themselves, he said, it’s difficult for “the public (to) have the confidence that we did the right thing. I think if there were an independent body out there to look at the facts, that it might actually be a good thing.”

His comments came after Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said during the Associated Press Legislative Preview at the state capitol that Democrats will propose sweeping new ethics laws this year, including an independent ethics commission, new financial disclosure laws and “revolving-door” requirements, which require a wait between holding a public position and shifting to a private-sector one that makes use of the public-sector experience.

“Throughout the year we’ve seen behavior that is unbecoming of public servants,” Malepeai declared. He called for both parties to “work together to bring about some sweeping changes in our ethics law so that we can deal with those issues in the future.”

Malepeai declined to name names. In addition to Hart’s ethics issues, Idaho has seen dustups this year over two southern Idaho lawmakers who collected state-paid per diem under questionable circumstances; over an eastern Idaho lawmaker who killed a bill that could have hurt an upcoming lawsuit he then filed; and more.

Idaho is one of just a handful of states with no requirements for legislators - or any other state elected or appointed officials - to regularly disclose their financial interests. Most states require such disclosures, as does the U.S. Congress, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “People want what government is necessary to be focused on the common good and not on personal gain. So we’ll be trying to address programs and proposals that restore some of the faith that people have lost in government.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, noted that the Senate in the past voted unanimously in favor of a bipartisan financial disclosure bill. It died without a vote in the House, after Denney blocked it from coming up for a vote in committee.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Hill said. “I’ve talked to Sen. (Bart) Davis, who was one of the chief drafters of that, and to the speaker.” Hill said the “Senate as a whole” is “very interested in seeing something go forth.”

He expressed less enthusiasm for revolving-door restrictions, saying he hasn’t seen evidence they’re needed, but said, “Let’s consider it.”

The most recent instances of revolving-door moves in Idaho include the deputy director of the state Department of Insurance taking a top executive position with one of the main insurance companies he formerly regulated, and the governor’s chief of staff going to work as a lobbyist. Both happened within the past six months. In addition, it’s common for Idaho legislators, once they’ve completed their legislative service, to return to the Statehouse the very next year wearing lobbyist tags.

Hill said he’s willing to consider an independent ethics commission, though he said lawmakers will need to balance each house’s responsibility to regulate its business. “I think we ought to explore it,” he said.

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