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Two States With Tarnished Images Make Strong Gains on Ethics in 2008

Many states have suffered from public officials being involved in ethics scandals.  While sometimes there is talk of reform and other overtures, comprehensive reform is most often elusive.  However, some states have managed, either in response to one particularly egregious event or a history of problems being overturned in a wave of dissatisfaction, to truly make a fundamental change.  This year Connecticut once again moved forward with a multi-year ethics reform initiative, and Louisiana enacted one of the most far-reaching ethics overhauls any state has in generations.  These impressive accomplishments will hopefully serve as models upon which progressive leaders in other states will build.

Connecticut Puts Additional Pieces of Ethics Reform in Place: Four years after former Governor Rowland plead guilty to ethics violations and was sent to jail, Connecticut enacted the final pieces of ethics reform legislation put forth as a response to that scandal.  Connecticut did not have notably weak ethics laws prior to the scandal, but, with the support of advocates including the Connecticut Citizen’s Action Group and Common Cause of Connecticut, lawmakers and the governor have moved deliberately to craft policies that set even higher standards.  In 2005 the legislature enacted comprehensive public financing of campaigns for the legislature and statewide office.  This was the first instance in the country of state legislators enacting a clean elections system that applied to their own campaigns.  The system has garnered broad candidate participation and reduced uncontested races significantly.

As part of the 2005 reforms, the state also enacted a model pay-to-play law that is among the best in the country.  The statute prohibits campaign contributions from all state contractors and lobbyists. The state also reorganized its ethics commission, establishing a Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board to oversee the new Office of State Ethics.

The latest round of reforms:

  • Allow the Attorney General to request that corrupt public officials have their pension revoked.
  • Ban gifts to public officials except for those offered at “major life events”? such as weddings, and these gifts cannot have a value greater than $1,000.
  • Prohibit state contractors from offering jobs to government employees who participated significantly in awarding a contract to the firm.
  • Require lawmakers to receive ethics training.
  • Designate the governor’s spouse as a public official for the purpose of complying with ethics laws.

Passage of the ethics package was in doubt all session as key lawmakers battled over whether the pension revocation provision should be retroactive, and whether such revocations would violate collective bargaining agreements.  In the end, retroactivity was excluded and a judge will determine if any collective bargaining agreement stands in the way of stripping an official’s pension.

Lawmakers in Connecticut now have a few feathers in their ethics reform cap.  And Good Jobs First has ranked the state number one when it comes to disclosure of economic development subsidies, procurement contracts and lobbying.  However, the state’s campaign disclosure requirements for officials choosing to run privately funded campaigns are still quite weak, garnering the state a D grade on the Center for Public Integrity’s disclosure rankings.  Disclosure for municipal lobbying is also not required, and this is an area that advocates are urging the legislature to address.  With that in mind, progressive legislators in Connecticut should keep the pressure on to finish the job of making the state a model of accountable government.

Louisiana Overhauls Ethics Laws Hoping to Clean-Up Image and Boost Investment:  Louisiana is a state long infamous for endemic political corruption.  This reputation lives on and state leaders worry it has been an obstacle to hurricane recovery with the federal government and private donors wary of possible problems in how rebuilding funds are handled.  Local advocates such as the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and the Council for a Better Louisiana have been beating the drum for basic ethics reform for years.  In this instance the business community joined in the push for reform through the LA Ethics 1 and Blueprint Louisiana initiatives.  Recently-elected Governor Bobby Jindal is also convinced that the state’s negative reputation keeps businesses from locating or investing there, and government ethics and competent administration were the major planks in his campaign platform. 

Upon being elected, the governor quickly called the legislature into special session to pass an ethics package.  He put forth several dozen changes to current law, the majority of which where designed to increase the state’s position on independent watchdogs’ rankings of disclosure and ethics laws (by the Better Government Association and the Center for Public Integrity).  While much of the package passed, lawmakers were especially resistant to strong financial disclosure requirements.  They ended up growing the list of officials covered under the requirement significantly, even adding volunteer members of small state agencies to the rigorous disclosure requirements.  This has already stirred calls to amend the law.  Lawmakers also vociferously opposed a move to ban all gifts, and even a $50 limit on meals purchased by lobbyists drew scorn, though it eventually passed and certainly hasn't kept the legislators from eating well.

According to advocates, the major setbacks of the session came in a bill to strip the state ethics board of the power to adjudicate cases, giving that power to administrative law judges.  This bill also became the target of a successful amendment that advocates decried which raised the standard of proof for being found guilty of ethics charges.  In the end advocates and lawmakers were satisfied with the results and feel the new laws are a big step forward for Louisiana as they rebuild their state. 

Major components of the ethics package as compiled by the Public Affairs Research Council:

  • Legislators, statewide elected officials, local elected officials, members of many state boards and commissions and some top staffers are required to disclose information about their personal finances (HB 1).
  • Non-governmental entities that receive state funding (HR 2) and “527”? political groups (SB 29) have to file disclosure reports.
  • The commissioner of administration is required to develop a Web site to report spending data for each state budget unit, including salary information for top officials (SB 37).
  • Political advertisements funded by third-party groups have to list the groups’ full name and contact information and state if a candidate authorized the ad (SB 14).
  • Top public officials, including legislators, the governor’s executive staff and cabinet secretaries and the spouses of each, will be prohibited from entering into contracts with the state (SB 1).
  • In cases where a conflict of interest exists for elected officials, SB 5 will require recusal from pertinent votes. Currently, only disclosure of the conflict has to be made, but the vote is allowed.
  • Tickets to major sporting events and private golf and hunting outings are prohibited (SB 3).
  • Lobbyist expenditure reports will require information regarding their compensation, the subject matter being lobbied, and business relationships with public officials and their spouses. The reports will have to be made monthly and filed electronically (SB 11).
  • There will be an Office of the Inspector General with the statutory authority to investigate the executive branch and have subpoena, oath-administration and testimony-taking powers (HB 56).

Other Progress on Ethics in 2008

  • Another governor elected on a reform platform, but unable to reach a compromise with the legislature on ethics changes, Steve Beshear of Kentucky issued an executive order that limits his discretion when appointing two of his three appointees to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission; removed the Commission from his office; forbids employees from negotiating jobs with people or companies they deal with in their job; and regulates legal defense funds.
  • In South Carolina the Ethics Commission suggested a series of modest expansions of current ethics laws to include family members in some prohibitions; add state contractors to the revolving-door law; regulate police officer solicitations; and clarify the gift ban of $25 per calendar year.  All were passed by the legislature.
  • As we highlighted last week, Illinois has passed pay-to-play contracting reform through both houses and the bill is now on the governor's desk.

For more on the movement of ethics reform legislation in the states, see Ethics in the News 2008 compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures' Center for Ethics in Government.

While we continue to see regular instances of elected officials and government employees abusing their offices, there is also steady progress in many states toward a more transparent and accountable way of governing.  The strong desire among Americans for a new era of clean and competent government presents an exceptional opportunity for progressives to push for strong, comprehensive ethics and campaign finance reforms.

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