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Mainstream ethics laws overdue in Idaho

Idaho’s political leaders might be experiencing twinges of guilt over lax ethic standards. Or, perhaps they want to head off another voter initiative that could tighten the rules more than they’d like.

Whatever the case, top lawmakers are forming a formal legislative working group to study these issues.

Last year, backers of a campaign finance and ethics initiative fell just short of the number of valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. The sweeping measure would’ve banned lobbyist gifts of more than $50 annually, reduced contribution limits to candidates and political committees, required campaign finance reports to be reported electronically and posted online immediately, placed a one-year lobbying ban on public officials moving into the private sector and prohibited campaign donations from businesses holding state contracts worth $250,000 or more in the past two years.

Unlike Washington state, Idaho makes it difficult for citizens to bypass the Legislature with initiatives. As Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Z. Russell has pointed out, “No initiative has qualified for the Idaho ballot since state lawmakers in 2013 imposed the requirement to get 6 percent of registered voters’ signatures from each of at least 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.”

The Legislature passed that law after voters passed three initiatives that overturned school-reform measures supported by the governor and the schools superintendent at the time. But while lawmakers tied down citizen initiatives, they let their ethics laws flap in the breeze.

The state remains just one of three without financial disclosure requirements for any elected or appointed state official. It also doesn’t have a “revolving door” policy to limit how quickly a public official can move into a similar role in the private sector and begin lobbying.

In 2009, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill establishing the state’s first financial disclosure requirements. But the bill couldn’t get a hearing in the House.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, say they will name 10 lawmakers to a study group by Friday. This isn’t the first time.

In 2012, a group was formed for the same purpose. As we said in an editorial back then: “Rather than reinvent the wheel on ethics, the working group could just turn to the Center for Public Integrity for the best practices in other states. For instance, Washington finished first in public disclosure, according to the center’s 2009 state rankings. The system is pretty slick. Information on a legislator’s sources of income is just a few clicks away.”

We don’t expect Idaho lawmakers to abide by an aggressive initiative that didn’t make the ballot, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to adopt mainstream financial disclosure requirements and a lobbying pause for departing public officials to prevent them from immediately taking advantage of their previous positions.

Failure to do so would once again invite an initiative with stricter measures.

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