BOISE - After a string of ethical lapses and questions about Idaho lawmakers’ conduct that’s only been increasing in recent years, new lawmakers will face something unprecedented when they arrive in Boise for their organizational session next week: Formal ethics training.
That’s not all. When the Legislature convenes its 2013 session the second week of January, business will pause on the session’s third day, as all lawmakers, old and new, are put through an hours-long ethics training session.
“Obviously, we’ve had some issues with breaches of ethical behavior over the last few years,” said Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. Hill said he and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, decided to institute the new training, and the Legislative Council, a panel of legislative leaders, approved it.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “I applaud it.”
But he noted that a bipartisan working group of senators and representatives met for weeks during the 2012 legislative session without success, trying to reach consensus on new, tougher ethics laws, from an independent ethics commission - which only Idaho and eight other states lack - to financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, which only Idaho and two other states don’t have.
Said Rusche, “I still think there’s a long way to go.”
The list of ethical lapses is long, ranging from matters that barely raised eyebrows to several prompting full ethics investigations.
In June, for example, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, repaid $890 to the state for a taxpayer-funded end-of-session letter she sent out to Republicans in her former and new legislative districts, touting her record and thanking supporters as she sought re-election.
The previous June, Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, was admonished and acknowledged she erred after her intern sent a mass email from her legislative account, seeking ideas to support a school-reform referendum effort, including ways to engage high school students.
In February, House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, persuaded the House to pass his bill to shut off parking meters around the state Capitol during the legislative session, saying a constituent brought him the issue, but not revealing that his 24-year-old son was issued numerous parking tickets in the area and had his car towed on the first day of the 2012 legislative session for unpaid tickets.
No ethics action was taken. Denney backed Palmer, saying, “I don’t think that crosses the ethical line.” The bill died in the Senate.
Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, was the subject of three ethics complaints in 2011 and 2010, over his ongoing fight against paying back state and federal income taxes, his repeated invoking of legislative privilege to win delays in his tax cases, and his illegal logging of state school endowment land in 1996 for logs to build his log home in Athol, for which he never paid an outstanding judgment.
Hart lost his seat on the House tax committee as a result, and also gave up his vice-chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee to avoid further ethics sanctions. He apologized to the House in February.
Back in 2007, Denney came under fire after he recommended that a California developer dump its lobbyist, with whom Denney had a political dispute, and instead hire a former member of House GOP leadership who had just switched to lobbying.
Idaho has no waiting period between legislative or government service and lobbying; a one-year waiting period was among the bills the bipartisan working group examined this year, but never proposed.
Hill said laws like that still could be enacted. “I think we do need to look at some changes in the statutes,” he said. “But at the same time, that isn’t going to do it either. It’s a character issue.”
He said lawmakers will benefit from a better understanding of ethics laws and requirements, and reminders that the public holds them to high standards.
“We need to be inspired to just be our best selves,” he said.
The ethics training will include a session next week for new lawmakers - and there are a record-tying 44 of those this year - led by Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“She’s coming in Wednesday to basically provide that values-based kind of presentation to our new legislators,” said Jeff Youtz, Idaho director of legislative services.
Then, on Jan. 9, all legislators, old and new, will gather in the Capitol Auditorium for an ethics training session from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. “It’s a terrific opportunity to have everybody hear the same thing at the same time,” Youtz said, from conflicts of interest to campaign finances, gifts and lobbyists to bribery laws. “We’ll even go through everything as mundane as when is it appropriate to use your Senate stationery.”
He added, “We will fill up the auditorium. We’re going to invite lobbyists and agency staff and anybody who wants to be there, it’ll be an open meeting. It’ll be really unique.”
Hill said he hopes the ethics training sessions will set the tone for this year’s Idaho legislative session. “We want the legislators to know it’s important,” he said, “and also to let the people know that we know it’s important.”