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Permanent House ethics panel proposed

Tue., Jan. 22, 2013, midnight

Five members called for; Democrats warm to plan

BOISE – A permanent, five-member House Ethics Committee is slated to replace the chamber’s current system of convening temporary committees to consider complaints against sitting representatives in the Idaho Legislature.

That’s according to a measure introduced Monday in the House Judiciary & Rules Committee. It’s now due a full public hearing.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, has been pushing changes since taking office in December.

Rep. Lynn Luker, a Boise Republican who helped draft the measure, says having a permanent panel of three majority and two minority members, rather than the ad hoc seven-member ethics committee that’s called up only after a complaint has been lodged, will bolster the group’s professionalism and speed up the process of vetting complaints.

“It’s so you don’t have to go through the process every time there’s a new complaint,” Luker said.

According to the proposal, each party would choose its own members for the House Ethics Committee.

Complaints could only be filed by representatives and would also initially be confidential, becoming public only after a majority of House members agree that hearings are merited.

Complaints would also be limited to include conduct unbecoming of a representative, disclosure of confidential House information, felonies that involve a lawmaker violating conflict of interest provisions or that result in a financial benefit, and any violation of state law or House rules that brings discredit to the chamber.

What’s more, House members couldn’t be called to account for something they did before taking office.

That would rule out complaints like the one filed in 2010 against then-state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, whose behavior was challenged not only for not paying his state and federal income taxes, but for taking state-owned timber without paying for it in the mid-1990s – long before he was elected in 2004.

“They were under a different obligation at that time,” Luker said about the rationale for limiting complaints to after somebody had been elected.

Hart is no longer in the House, having been defeated last year in his bid for re-election.

The new standing committee would fall short of the independent ethics commission that minority Democrats unsuccessfully fought for during the 2012 Legislature. Idaho is among just nine states without such a panel.

Still, Democrats on the House panel, including Rep. Grant Burgoyne, of Boise, sounded a positive note on Monday about the endeavor. Burgoyne said his party’s members in the House had been consulted about Luker’s proposal and been offered the chance to make suggestions, some of which were adopted.

Judiciary & Rules Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, was optimistic that bipartisan support of Luker’s proposal would ultimately add integrity to the new committee, calling the creation of the new rules “a fair and productive process.”


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