The Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill that makes several changes to Vermont’s ethics laws, including establishing an ethics commission.
The bill, S.8, passed on a voice vote Tuesday morning with no opposition.
Introducing the legislation on the floor, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who chairs the Government Operations Committee, said there is a lack of trust in municipal and state government, citing figures from a poll published by Vermont Public Radio and Castleton Polling Institute last year.
“This is a problem,” she said.
The five-member commission created by the legislation would have a part-time executive director and include members appointed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Vermont Bar Association and others. It has an estimated cost of $100,000.
The commission would not have any powers to investigate or enforce, but would instead refer complaints to existing agencies, such as the attorney general’s office.
The bill, which passed out of the Government Operations Committee last month, enshrines several other ethics standards in law, including a provision addressing “pay to play” concerns by restricting certain state contracts for those who make significant political contributions.
It also establishes financial disclosure requirements for statewide officeholders and candidates. The bill would also restrict lawmakers and high-level administration officials from becoming registered lobbyists for one year after they leave office.
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, said the bill does not go far enough.
“I think it hardly scratches the surface if we’re truly after ethics in government,” he said.
Rodgers voted in favor of the bill but said it takes on an “extremely small slice” of what needs to be addressed.
Speaking on the floor, White said the proposal in the bill is not the “full-fledged” ethics commission that some had proposed. Such a panel comes with a high cost, she said, adding that it is not clear if Vermont needs that type of commission.
After the Senate adjourned, she said the commission as drafted in the bill will serve as a “funnel” that will direct concerns about conduct of Vermont officials and candidates to existing channels.
By setting up the commission as proposed, she said, Vermont may find the state doesn’t have an ethics problem.
“We may not need a full ethics commission with investigator and enforcement abilities,” White said.
If the bill passes the Senate on its third reading Wednesday, it will move to the House.