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Idaho lawmakers drop ethics commission idea

Tue., March 6, 2012, 3:58 p.m.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, left, and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, right, address the Idaho Press Club on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, left, and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, right, address the Idaho Press Club on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers won’t create a new independent ethics commission this year, House Speaker Lawerence Denney said Tuesday, despite weeks of study and initial support for the concept from leaders in both houses.

“I think we’re at the point where we’re ruling out the independent ethics commission,” Denney told the Idaho Press Club.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “We put together a working group, and it didn’t function quite as well as we had hoped it would, as far as coming to consensus and so forth. So it’s late in the session, but we are putting together some things.”

Hill and Denney said both houses are looking at possible changes in their internal rules to improve the House and Senate ethics committee processes. Denney said, “In the rule that we are looking at proposing, we will have training every year in ethics. … I think what we need to do is do a better job of training our members as to some of those subtle things that they need to be looking out for, the traps they can get caught in.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, who served on the ethics working group and proposed her own ethics commission bill this year, said, “I think it’s unfortunate. I think they’ve missed another opportunity to show we could make things work better here.”

Forty-one states, including Washington, have independent ethics commissions. In Idaho, ethics complaints against lawmakers go before committees of fellow lawmakers appointed by the speaker and president pro-tem.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who last year lost a committee vice-chairmanship after he filed an ethics complaint against fellow North Idaho lawmaker and tax protester Rep. Phil Hart, said he drafted a proposed House rule change last year to have members of the House, from both parties, elect members to a bipartisan ethics committee every two years, rather than have the speaker appoint members each time an ethics complaint arises. This year, other lawmakers are championing the same proposal.

“I think it’s a really large step in the right direction,” Anderson said. “I think that what we had by rule before was inadequate.”

After Anderson filed his ethics complaint against Hart, a Hart supporter, North Idaho political activist Larry Spencer, filed his own ethics complaint against Anderson. Anderson said he underwent an extensive investigation of his finances, home ownership and more, though the investigation concluded the complaint was unfounded. “That was no fun,” he said.

After that, the House changed its rule last year to clarify that no one but a House member can file an ethics complaint against another member. Anderson said he didn’t think that was the answer, either; he thought perhaps outside complaints should be taken up by another entity, such as the Attorney General’s office, rather than just ignored. “I would rather know about it and have it investigated, like Larry’s complaint,” he said. “At least you have somebody objectively looking at it.”

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, who served on the ethics working group, said the group met for four and a half weeks, with each of the eight members taking a turn chairing the panel, and he emerged praising the “positive dialogue” and championing House rule changes.

After much study, the four Democrats on the eight-member working group generally favored an independent ethics commission, and the four Republicans generally favored an improved in-house ethics process within the Legislature.

“I think we have to be very careful with crossing over with powers of different branches of government,” Bayer said.

Denney said he saw a “separation of powers problem” with an independent commission.

King, however, noted that the ethics working group received an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion suggesting an independent commission, depending on how it’s structured, “would likely respect the separation of powers.”

Hill and Denney said they haven’t given up on other ethics reforms passing this year, including Idaho’s first-ever financial disclosure requirements and possibly “revolving door” legislation to require public officials to wait a year before turning directly to paid lobbying.

Hill said financial disclosure legislation is more likely, even though there are still deep differences on that issue between the Senate, which passed a disclosure bill unanimously in 2009, and the House, which hasn’t considered it. Idaho is one of just three states without disclosure requirements.

The revolving-door legislation, Hill said, “just hasn’t been as high on the priority list as some of those other things.”

This year saw high-profile examples of Idaho officials turning to lobbying, from the longtime deputy director of the state Department of Insurance taking a position heading up government affairs for one of the state’s two largest insurance companies, to the governor’s former chief of staff immediately signing on as a lobbyist for firms including the Corrections Corp. of America, which has a multimillion-dollar contract with the state to operate a privately run prison south of Boise.

Hill said the Senate Republican caucus will consider possible rule changes later this week, and he also plans to share the proposal with minority Democrats. He called ethics reform one of the top issues lawmakers must address before they wrap up this year’s legislative session, which is expected to end around March 23.

“These are not going to be big, giant steps,” Hill said. “I know some others are not going to be satisfied, but I think we’re going to make some progress.”

Added Hill, “If we can do this as a bipartisan thing, we’d be happy to, but we don’t want to go home with nothing. We’d like to at least get the ball rolling.”

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