Monday, December 8, 2008

Idaho needs stronger ethics laws

This op-ed by state Sen. Kate Kelly has been appearing in newspapers across the state. It ran on the front page of the Idaho Statesman's Sunday Insight section on December 7.

Once again, Idaho ranks near the bottom of a national survey of state ethics laws. The Better Government Association recently rated Idaho's statutes 44th among the 50 states on an "Integrity Index."

The authors write that reviewing laws on open meetings, whistleblowers, campaign finance, open records and conflicts of interest "gives us an indication of how important ethics are to each state." In light of Idaho's dismal showing, the authors express their hope that "legislators and leaders in Idaho will use the Integrity Index as a tool to spur reform and upgrade their laws." I hope so, too.

One area where Idaho ranks particularly low on the Integrity Index, and where our citizens could benefit from more sunshine, is in our conflict of interest disclosure laws.

Idaho's top officials adopt and enforce laws and regulations, spend large amounts of taxpayer money, and give out appointments to influential positions. Almost every other state and the federal system have a requirement that public officials file a statement of their personal financial interests. This can expose or head off conflicts of interest. Idaho has no such law.

When a public official makes a decision about where a road should go or whether a business should get a tax break, it is appropriate for the public - on whose behalf the official is sworn to act - to know the official's business interests and the location of any real estate holdings.

The vast majority of Idaho's public officials are ethical public servants who operate with integrity and take their jobs seriously. But you shouldn't have to wonder whether an official might have a conflict of interest.

Attempts to amend Idaho's conflict of interest laws in recent years have failed. In 2007, a simple financial disclosure bill brought by myself and other Democratic senators was rejected in legislative committee on a party-line vote. Last year, we brought the legislation again and didn't even get a hearing. Proposed revolving door restrictions for lobbying and public contracting have met the same fate. We'll bring these proposals back in the upcoming legislative session. In light of the bad publicity about our ethics laws, maybe my colleagues will reconsider. Maybe they'll wonder whether continued inaction is best for our state.

Why are ethics reforms rejected? Because even if it's a good idea, those in authority are reluctant to change a system that brought them to power. Let me restate that: The people with the power are reluctant to risk losing that power by changing a system that works for them. If only the system worked for the people of Idaho.

There have been relatively few scandals in recent Idaho memory. Could this be because our state sets the ethical bar so low? As the latest survey demonstrates, facts that would merit attention, investigation or even penalties in other states may never come to light - and pass as business as usual - in Idaho.

Why should we wait for a corruption scandal to rock our boat and prompt wholesale change when we can heed the warnings and fix the law now?

There are some relatively simple steps that can be taken to toughen Idaho's ethics law. But if Idaho citizens don't demand change, it's unlikely to happen. Our state will remain relatively unprotected against abuses of power and stay near the bottom of the Integrity Index.

If you believe Idaho needs stronger ethics laws, let your public officials know.

Democratic Sen. Kate Kelly represents Boise's District 18.