The issue of ethics and the lack of an ethics commission has been of great interest over the last year or so to the media. How many Vermonters are passionate about the issue is not clear but we in the Senate have taken the issue seriously and have just passed a bill out of the Government Operations Committee that will come to the floor of the Senate sometime this week. While at first blush it seems pretty straightforward to set up a code of ethics and an ethics commission, once we got into it, it was not so straightforward.
Here are some of the issues that were raised: our Vermont Constitution specifies that the House will regulate House members and the Senate will regulate Senators. So farming that out to an ethics commission immediately raised issues — other states do not necessarily have that in their constitutions. Aside from the issue of legislators, establishing a code of ethics for state employees meant four different types of employees: elected statewide officials, who are answerable to the voters; governor appointees who are answerable to the governor; exempt employees, mainly attorneys; and classified employees who also have contractual rights.
The original bill called for an ethics commission that would have cost about $600 to $750,000. We felt that was uncalled for in these budget times. We looked at many other states and their commissions and whether they actually decreased any unethical actions. New Jersey was used as a model by one proponent; Rhode Island has one; and Florida has one — we did not see that any of them had necessarily changed behaviors.
So what does this bill do? In terms of behaviors it mainly does three things: it asks the Department of Human Resources to work with others to establish language that could apply to all; it prohibits what is called the revolving door — lobbying by legislators or appointed state officers immediately after leaving office; and it requires certain disclosures by candidates for statewide and general assembly offices, and all statewide appointees. It would require disclosure of income sources (not amounts) of over $10,000 and contracts with the state over $10,000 and disclosure of boards/commission/associations on which one serves.
The disclosure is one of the reasons it has taken so long to get out of committee. We were clear that we did not want to impose any disclosures on others that we as sitting Senators were unwilling to disclose. So we worked with the Senate rules committee to make sure we could coordinate as much as possible. They are also setting up an internal ethics panel that would hear complaints about sitting Senators
The bill also sets up an ethics commission, but not as extensive as the original bill. But we know that it is better to make a start that can be built on than to not do anything. This would have a five member commission and a part time paid executive director. The members are appointed by the Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, Human Rights Commission and Vermont Bar Association. They will hire the ED and will meet periodically.
The duties of the commission/director will be to give advisory opinions on question of potential ethical issues to anyone who requests. These will be kept confidential.
The commission will also receive complaints of alleged violations. If it concerns a legislator it will be referred to the appropriate ethics panel. If it concerns an employee it will be referred to Department of Human Resources. If a campaign finance allegation, to the Attorney General's office. If a governor's appointee, to the governor. If any of the allegations involve criminal activity it will be referred to the proper authorities.
While the commission does not, at this point, have power to investigate and enforce allegations, it will have a role to play. One of the points we heard from an ethics compliance officer was that the original bill was about four-fifths enforcement and one-fifth education. She felt it should be the reverse. So an important role for the commission is to gather the types of complaints, how they were resolved and inform us where we need to pay the most attention.
This certainly does not go far enough for those who feel we have something to hide, that we are not facing the issue and that we are only policing ourselves. But this is a start. Up to this point we have not seen a lot of cases of unethical behavior. Some would argue that but we were not presented with rampant unethical behavior. We do however feel it is important to begin the process and see where it might lead us. We may find that this is as far as it needs to go, we may find that there need to be tweaks, and we may find that we need a fully funded ethics commission that has investigative and enforcement abilities. That will be determined as we go forward and will be decisions for a future legislature after we have gathered some data.
Jeanette White is one of two senators who represent Windham County in the Vermont State Legislature.