State Senate trying to Norquist ethics reform

Vermont’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body has been taking its time with a proposal to set up a state Ethics Commission. Much more time than they took with legalizing marijuana, and probably longer than they’ll take with the frickin’ budget.

Why the slow play? Well, the Senate’s point person on ethics reform makes it abundantly clear.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, said, “Because the press keeps saying that we’re the only state without an ethics commission and clearly we have something to hide … I don’t really believe that.”

Credit to the Associated Press’ Dave Gram for capturing that entry into the Quote of the Year competition.

Jeezum Crow. The Senator in charge of ethics reform doesn’t believe ethics reform is necessary. She blames the media for fomenting “a lack of faith in government officials.”

Methinks the good Senator has been in Montpelier too long. She’s been so deep in the system for so long, she’s lost all perspective.

“The media” wouldn’t be following this story if we hadn’t had a series of ethical issues fill the headlines. Secretary of State Jim Condos, from his call for an independent ethics commission:

Just in the last few years, Vermonters have heard allegations of ethical issues about the governor, attorney general, legislators, candidates, and municipal officials. These complaints cross all party lines. The Secretary of State’s Office receives calls almost every week about municipal officials, alleging conflicts of interest and other ethically suspect actions. With no authority for the secretary of state to investigate or enforce these complaints, these citizens come away from the process feeling frustrated, helpless and increasingly cynical.

This doesn’t even include the worst case, that of disgraced Senator-in-Limbo Norm McAllister. His criminal prosecution is not directly an ethics matter, but it is an object lesson that You Never Know. You simply can’t assume that all Vermont officeholders are good people. If you thought you could, well, there’s no way you can after the McAllister scandal.

Somehow, Senator White is doing it. She’s whistling past this big, pungent graveyard as if nothing’s wrong.

And if Senators’ treatment of the ethics bill is anything to judge by, she’s far from alone in her Sergeant Schultz-itude. The bill is getting what I call the Norquist treatment; anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist famously said he wants to make government small enough that he can “drown it in the bathtub.” The ethics bill has been Norquisted in a couple of crucial ways:

1. The original bill called for a five-member Ethics Commission with an annual budget of $600,000. That’s been cut back to one part-time staffer (with no enforcement powers; s/he will simply report possible violations to the AG’s office) with a budget of $50,000. Plenty of lawmakers have said a full Commission is too expensive. And yes, the budget’s tight. But I’ll bet a shiny new nickel that, in the closing stages of budget deliberations, they’ll be flinging around millions here and there. If ethics enforcement was a priority, they’d find the money.

2. State lawmakers themselves would not be subject to Ethics Commission rule.

“The (state) Constitution says the Legislature shall judge its own members and that that power cannot be delegated; nor can it be taken by another branch of government,” said Rep. David Deen, a Democrat who chairs the House Ethics Panel.

We’ll get to the House Ethics Panel in a moment. I have three things to say about this Constitution dodge. First, I’d like to hear it from someone outside the Legislature. Second, if Deen is right, why did Secretary of State Condos propose an Ethics Commission with jurisdiction over the Legislature as well as the executive branch and municipal governments*? Isn’t he smart enough to understand the Constitution? Or are lawmakers engaging in a little self-interested interpretation?

*White’s committee has exempted municipal officials too.

And third, if Deen is right, then that’s a damn stupid thing to have in our Constitution. Am I to understand that Our Founding Fathers (women not allowed) thought it was a good idea to leave the foxes in charge of the henhouse?

As a lousy substitute to being under an Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction, the Senate is working to establish its own ethics committee along the lines of the House Ethics Panel created a couple of years ago.

Well, if it copies the House model, then I’m crying foul. The House Ethics Panel is a joke, and I can testify from first-hand experience.

I am the only person who has ever filed a complaint with the Panel. It concerned Rep. Adam Greshin’s attempt to eliminate a funding increase for Efficiency Vermont. As co-owner of the energy-intensive Sugarbush Ski Resort, he was lobbying for a provision that would substantially cut in his electricity bill. I thought that was ethically iffy. (Still do.)

And here’s what happened: the Panel met behind closed doors with Greshin. The meeting was not publicly warned. The Panel held no public hearings; I was not given a chance to make my case. In fact, I was never contacted at all until I received a letter informing me that the Panel had wrapped up the case and my complaint had been ashcanned.

Complete and utter lack of transparency.

If the proposed Senate Ethics Panel will operate the same way, it will do nothing to reassure the public (and us troublemakers in the media) that there is effective oversight of public officials’ ethics.

Nothing. No Thing.

After all we’ve been through in recent years, this is a piss-poor response by our elected representatives. It shows they are more concerned about their own comfort and convenience than earning the trust of the people.


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