[A] bill to establish a state ethics commission, which breezed through the Senate, ran into a wall of skepticism in the House on Wednesday.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, the chair of the House Ethics Committee, told members of the House Government Operations Committee to be cautious about S.8.
Deen broadly questioned the need for the commission and whether it would be constitutional. He strongly objected to sections of the bill that he said would undermine the authority of the Legislature to police itself. Deen said he would be “jealous and zealous” about maintaining the separation between the Legislature and the executive branch, where the commission would be housed.
“I think we are very capable of maintaining our own standards,” Deen said. He said a commission might make more sense if the Legislature was full-time and professional and not a part-time citizen legislature. A Democrat from Westminster, Deen has been in the House for 27 years.
Only five states — Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Vermont — do not have an ethics commission of some description, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Deen complained the commission would be used to unfairly air ethical allegations against lawmakers by the media and political opponents. He said only three complaints or so are filed each year.
Legislative counsel BetsyAnn Wrask said the commission would only pass along complaints to the appropriate authority and had neither investigative or enforcement powers.
The names of those against whom a complaint is filed would be kept anonymous by the commission, Wrask noted. A yearly report by the commission to the Legislature would outline the number and type of complaints filed and any outcomes resulting from the complaints. The report would not include personal information, she said.
Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, vice chair of the committee, was also skeptical about the ethics commission.
Hubert described it as “a minefield in a quagmire.” Later, he grew frustrated with the head of an advocacy group pushing the bill, prompting the committee chair to quell the testy exchange.
Members of the House committee are scheduled to vote on the bill as early as Thursday after more testimony, including input from a representative of Vermont Attorney General’s office. If approved by the panel, the bill would be voted on by the full House. The Senate passed S.8 in February on a voice vote without opposition.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, spoke in favor of the commission. He said the commission and the financial disclosure requirements for senators that were developed separately but side by side with the ethics bill, attempted to balance financial privacy with information about a lawmaker’s potential conflict of interest.
The financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers would kick in when they run for office. All candidates running for statewide office and for the House and Senate would have to disclose sources of income of $10,000 or more, as well as interests of 10 percent or more in a company and the names of boards and associations on which they serve.
The bill would also prohibit lawmakers from lobbying for one year after leaving office.
The bill seeks to prevent so-called “pay to play” situations in which officeholders accept campaign contributions from entities trying to do business with the state. The bill would restrict contributions from companies with state contracts worth $50,000 or more.
Benning told House committee members the bill made some lawmakers “uncomfortable” because of the financial reporting requirements. He also warned they would be bombarded by emails by supporters, including organized groups.
The bill would also require local communities to adopt conflict-of-interest policies. Many have testified the biggest ethical issues are at the town and municipal level.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, drew the ire of Rep. Hubert when he talked about President Donald Trump’s financial conflicts of interest.
Burns also tried to pitch a mandatory tax return disclosure provision for presidential and vice presidential candidates — a separate proposal that is not in the Senate ethics bill.
Hubert, raising his voice, complained the press had distorted the story and highlighted only the tax rate that Republican candidate Mitt Romney paid in taxes when he released his returns.
Rep. Maida Townsend, D- South Burlington, the committee chair, interrupted to say legal doubts had been raised about the presidential candidate disclosure bill.
“We’ll put this aside for now,” she said.