making local government more ethical

Ethics Pledges -- Make Them Stick

Here is an editorial from today's Salt Lake City Tribune about the state of the state's ethics laws. I've read editorials like this before, but this one sounds unusually hopeless. After the editorial, I will throw out an idea about how to go about getting politicians to make the right sort of ethics pledges.

Ethics reform: If at first you don't succeed ...
What do you call a place with no limits on contributions to political campaigns? Where lawmakers police themselves, and only act on ethics complaints from their peers? Where the recipients of 90 percent of lobbyists' gifts are never disclosed? Where campaign contributions can be spent to pay baby sitters, or repair cars, or cover other dubious expenses? Where, upon losing or retiring, candidates can take the balance of their campaign funds and spend it however they please?

Unscrupulous politicians would call that place heaven. Taxpayers, ethicists and advocates for transparent government might call that place hell. But the correct name, of course, is Utah, home of some of the most lax campaign finance laws and weakest ethics statutes in the nation.

From time to time The Tribune takes the public pulse on ethics and other issues. In a poll of registered voters conducted this year, 72 percent said they want legislators to create an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints against lawmakers. Last year, tired of seeing lawmakers sell themselves to lobbyists for the price of a steak, 62 percent told pollsters that they favored a gift ban.

And each and every year some reform-minded legislators rise up in righteous indignation and introduce a bill to curb some or all of these abuses. Invariably, that bill dies a quiet death in committee, and is never brought to a vote.

Next year will be no exception. About a dozen state legislators signed a pledge Wednesday to derail the gravy train in the 2009 session. Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, say they will sponsor stronger ethics laws.

Full disclosure of gifts by both lawmaker and lobbyist. Penalties for political action committees and candidates that fail to file, or file inaccurate, reports. A law prohibiting the purchase of personal items with campaign funds. A requirement forcing losing candidates and retiring lawmakers to donate their campaign contributions to a worthy cause, i.e. not themselves. Nice!

Of course, Jones and Mascaro left a few things off the wish list. An outright gift ban; a limit on campaign contributions; an independent ethics commission. But it doesn't matter. The bill will be dead on arrival. And the gravy train will keep chugging along.

What can be done in a state such as Utah, or a city without an ethics program? You can't wait for legislators to act. They've already made their position clear -- we'll do what we can get away with. We're here, aren't we, and you're voting for us, aren't you? So tell me why we should lift a finger against ourselves.

The only solution, besides a big scandal, is to read them the riot act. Citizen organizations need to focus on the issue, take advantage of the poll numbers, and insist that all legislative or council candidates sign a pledge to pass certain ethics laws. Then ask voters not to vote for anyone who doesn't sign the pledge. And if none of the candidates in one's district sign the pledge? There is an alternative: don't vote in that election (but do go to the polls). That's the only music they can hear. One candidate will win, of course, but try telling your kids why only 10% of the people who went to the polls voted for you. And the winner will know that, come next election, there will be other candidates taking the pledge, and so his days are numbered unless he gets with it.

One warning:  make sure the pledge isn't limited (like the Utah politicians pledging to sponsor a bill) to sponsoring a bill or voting for it on the floor, because as this editorial recognizes, these bills and ordinances never make it to the floor. Even pledging a vote in committee is meaningless when you know the legislative leaders won't let the bills come to the floor.

The pledge must include voting out any legislative leaders who refuse to bring the bills or ordinances to the floor of the legislative body.

News from Elsewhere: Illinois found a special way to remove obstacles to ethics reform; have the favorite-son presidential candidate put pressure on the senate president, his former mentor. But the governor doesn't like Sen. Obama, so . . .

In New York State, the legislature has a clever way of preventing ethics reform. Speaking to the New York Times, the legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York State said that the Senate and Assembly pass different ethics bills and then blame each other for refusing to compromise. Children will be children, as long as they can get away with it.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-230-2548

DonMc says:

Rob, this is definitely an interesting discussion.
I think one additional option to mention is the concept of a complete bypass of the existing infrastructure: a grass-roots campaign to place an item on the ballot - to create an independent ethics commission, and furthermore, to allow the newly created commission to put amendments on the BALLOT rather than leave it up to corrupt incumbent politicians... I believe that this was done in the City of San Francisco some time back. It would be interesting to get an honest assessment of how effective that structure has been for them since its inception.

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