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Talk of ethics reform veers from panel idea

Wed., March 7, 2012

Financial disclosure rules emerge as a possibility

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers won’t create an independent ethics commission this year 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,” House Speaker Lawerence Denney told the Idaho Press Club Tuesday.

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 their respective ethics committee processes. Denney said the House is looking at ethics training, for example: “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, called the failure to create an independent commission a missed opportunity.

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 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.

After Anderson filed an ethics complaint against Hart, a Hart supporter 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.

After that, the House changed its rule to clarify that no one but a House member can file an ethics complaint against another member.

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. He emerged praising the “positive dialogue.”

After much study, the four Democrats on the eight-member 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.

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

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 becoming paid lobbyists.

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.

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