Lawmakers have a tough time making laws involving themselves.
That’s the conclusion of the original sponsor of a bill to create a State Ethics Commission and code of conduct, a bill so watered down as it heads to the governor’s desk that Secretary of State Jim Condos said he fears it’s just a fig leaf lawmakers can hide behind to “say they did something.”
The best that supporters have been able to muster is calling it “a good first step.”
And the only reason anything happened, according Sen. Jeanette White, the chair of the Senate committee where the bill was discussed over multiple sessions, was the media kept writing about how Vermont was one of the few states without an ethics commission, embarrassing lawmakers into finally taking action.
One telling observation about the priority of lawmakers: The income disclosure provisions for members of the Legislature and their spouses or partners were the most contentious item during discussion in the House Government Operations Committee, according to Vice Chair Ron Hubert, R-Milton. Senate Government Operations also spent significant time on the issue, and when the bill reached the floor, the financial disclosures, particularly for spouses and partners, were the most debated item in the two chambers.
“I think at the beginning no one would have imagined that there would have been so much resistance and so many winding paths that this bill would have to go down before it would become a reality. So given the opposition, I’m happy with where we’re at,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, the original sponsor.
“We’re really eager to make laws that impact other people, but when it comes to laws that affect the Legislature itself, we’re not really willing to do that. We’ll judge others but not judge ourselves,” he said.
White agreed the process was slowed because lawmakers don’t like legislation that affects themselves.
“I think it was a longer process, and part of it was people thinking it was impacting legislators, and we never like to pass things that impact ourselves,” White said. “Look at when we passed campaign finance. We don’t like to do that. We like to pass things that affect other people.”
White, D-Windham, said: “I think there were a lot of people who didn’t understand why we needed it in the first place,” adding she was among the skeptics.
Despite the grumbling, the measure passed overwhelmingly. Lawmakers said privately they felt enormous pressure to vote yes, even though some saw zero need for the bill and did not feel Vermont had enough ethical problems to warrant a commission.
Then there were those disclosure requirements that some viewed as intrusive for citizen lawmakers and their spouses and would, they said, provide another reason for people not to run.
In the end, the vote in the House was a lopsided 144-1, but only after some fighting. At one point 33 House members voted to exclude spousal income from the reporting; then all but one, Rep. Steve Beyor, R-Highgate Springs, signed on in the end. Then, right after the vote, a group of lawmakers back-slapped Beyor and shook his hand right outside the chamber for voting no on a bill they lacked the courage to publicly oppose.
In the Senate, the bill passed unanimously on a voice vote, after an agreement was made not to have a roll call. Late in the process, several senators voiced opposition, one because of a lobbying restriction; another, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said the term “domestic partner” was improperly inserted at the last minute.
What would have to be disclosed, as well, was subject to debate and compromise. Candidates for the Legislature — and their spouses — must disclose sources of income of $5,000 or more but not the exact amount. They would not have to show their federal tax returns, while statewide candidates would. And there’s no real penalty involved if candidates fail to comply.
The biggest hole, according to Condos, is that the commission has no real authority and is simply a “funnel” to send complaints elsewhere. He and Pollina initially envisaged a commission with a full-time executive director and team of investigators. In the end, the bill calls for a part-time director and no team. They’ll send a report annually to the Legislature on the nature and number of complaints received; they will also try to educate politicians and state workers on ethics. Unless action is taken, the complaints and their subject will remain confidential.
The bill also contains measures supporters say are absolutely crucial: a prohibition on “pay to play” campaign contributions to win larger state contracts; a requirement lawmakers wait a year before they lobby in the Statehouse; and a big nudge to municipalities to develop ethical standards, key because many say that’s where the bulk of the ethics problems occur.
Pollina said he’s happy something survived, that it establishes a commission, that it can be expanded in the future if warranted.
At least now, agree Condos, White and Pollina, the public will have a central place to file complaints.
“I think that what we came up with was something good. It gives people, citizens a focal point for where they can lodge some complaints if they want to,” White said.
There may not ever be a need for a commission with full investigatory powers.
“I don’t think it’s a shell. I think it’s something real,” she said.
And White added with a touch of sarcasm, the state with one of the strictest codes of conduct and pages of ethical standards: New Jersey.
“What I’m saying is I don’t know that a state code of ethics or an ethics commission necessarily means you won’t have less corruption,” she said.