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Unanimous Idaho legislative panel backs financial disclosure for all candidates, elected officials

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, right, discusses financial disclosure requirements with fellow legislative panel members Reps. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, left, and John VanderWoude, R-Nampa, center, after the panel unanimously backed Loertscher’s disclosure bill, calling for the full Legislature to pass the bill when it convenes in January. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – It’s time for Idaho to end its distinction as one of just two states with no personal financial disclosure requirements at all for its elected officials, a panel of state lawmakers agreed on Monday.

“Can you believe it?” asked Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, after the Legislature’s campaign finance reform legislative work group wrapped up its meeting. Loertscher had worked on the proposal for the past four years and presented it to the legislative panel.

“I think everybody in the room realizes that we probably had to do something,” said Loertscher, a conservative who’s in his seventh House term. “We get a black eye for not being very ethical and not requiring any disclosure of any kind.”

Under the new proposal – which the legislative panel recommended the full Legislature pass when it convenes in January – all candidates for elective office at the state, legislative, county or city level would have to file annual disclosures that identify: their primary employer and occupation or job title; all entities they own or for which they’re an officer; each entity that has paid them $5,000 or more in income in the past year; each entity in which they own stocks or bonds valued at more than $5,000 unless they’re managed by a third party; any boards on which they serve; and their spouse’s name, occupation and employer.

It wouldn’t require them to disclose the amount of their income or the value of their assets.

“I wanted to make this the least intrusive way we could do this,” Loertscher said. “I think the stuff we’ve seen in the past has been overly intrusive and not what we need in Idaho. We are a citizen legislature. We have conflicts of interest. … And we’ve got to get legislators to disclose these conflicts.”

The proposed bill also asks candidates to disclose real estate holdings if they believe they might pose a conflict of interest.Also, it requires officeholders to disclose conflicts that weren’t listed on their disclosure forms before they cast votes on the matters.

Violations would be punishable by $250 fines; repeat violations would bring $500 fines.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, who voted in favor of the proposal, said afterward that he’s a little uncomfortable with required disclosure of the candidate’s spouse’s employer. But Loertscher noted that with Idaho being a community property state, spouses have direct ownership stakes in their spouse’s incomes. Laughing, Loertscher described it as, “What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is yours” – and vice versa.

“I see validity in transparency,” Dixon said. “I think we need it.”

Loertscher patterned the proposal after an existing law in Utah.

Idaho and Michigan are the only states that still require no personal financial disclosure from candidates or officeholders; the third state that lacked any such requirement, Vermont, enacted it last spring as part of a slate of ethics reforms.

In 2009, the Idaho Senate unanimously passed a personal financial disclosure bill that was co-sponsored by the Senate’s majority and minority leaders. It never came up for a vote in the House after then-House Speaker Lawerence Denney declined to assign it to a committee, calling it “an issue that’s not ripe on the House side yet.”

Denney, now Idaho’s secretary of state, told the legislative committee on Monday that his office had no position on Loertscher’s proposal. When asked whether he’d prefer Loertscher’s proposal for a flat $250 fine for initial violations, or a more flexible fine that would range up to a certain amount, Denney said, “If you would set that figure so that we don’t have discretion, that would be a whole lot easier for us. … I personally would rather see it be a set figure,” he said amid laughter, “so that I can blame the Legislature.”