MY LAST NERVE: Lawmakers Keep Ethics Debate Secret

February 21, 2014

Inside Insight

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By JAMIE MURGUIA
keep out

The legislature returned this week, and the Senate got right to work on the ethics bill. The only problem was that the public was shut out of the debate. Literally, shut out.

When the Senate got to the bill Wednesday they went into a “thirty minute” recess that lasted more than two hours. When they returned from their recess, Sen. John Courson (R- Richland) noted that they had reached significant process on a compromise and were going to adjourn for the night. So they did.

This was not the first time the Senate shut the public out of the discussion on this bill. On several different occasions this year – and bear in mind, the Senate has only been in session since January 14 – the bill has been debated in executive session and closed-door recesses. Why? Because lawmakers are trying to reach a compromise among members and avoid a real debate on the issues on the Senate floor where the public can watch and hold their lawmaker accountable. In fact, Senator Larry Martin (R- Pickens), chairman of the Judiciary Committee (the committee this bill went through) said on the floor Thursday he hoped to “escape having to [have extended debate] on the floor” because it would take longer to get through the bill.

Perhaps lawmakers are comfortable shutting the public out of the debate and compromising among one another because they don’t think the public cares about ethics reform. That’s what several of them claim, anyway. Sens. Larry Martin and John Scott (D-Richland), for example, remarked on the floor Thursday that they hadn’t received a lot of interest from their constituents on the bill. Maybe legislators believe citizens are far more concerned with things like permitting hunting with falcons and solidifying theWooly Mammoth as the official state fossil, because both of those bills advanced this week in the Senate and House respectively.

Here’s the truth. If it weren’t for the public pushing their legislators to reform the system from which so many have benefitted, they wouldn’t be debating this bill at all. In fact, they may well have passed the bill proposed by the Speaker last year that would have decriminalized all ethics violations. And, no surprise here, that bill was drafted in secret as well.

If one has any doubts that closed-door meetings never yield positive results, look no further than the compromise the Senate reached Wednesday night. The amendment would have made the process of investigating lawmakers’ ethics violations even worse. Senate and House members would not fall under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission. The House and Senate ethics committees would have remained in place, do initial investigations and determine whether or not a complaint against a lawmaker or candidate for legislative office should be referred to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Any reports by SLED would then be referred to each chamber’s ethics committee. Does that sound like an independent investigative process to you?

At the end of the day Thursday, however, after several more hours of closed door meeting and bargaining, lawmakers emerged to let the public know that the compromise they reached the previous night was no longer good. Why? What was the problem? Who had the problem? We don’t know because that was all discussed in closed-door meetings.

From the beginning, this bill – a bill that should, practically speaking, restore the public trust in government and end legal corruption – has been the subject of one compromise after another. The governor has called it the “strongest ethics reform bill in a generation,” although at many points in the process no one but lawmakers had any idea what was in it (and even some of them had no idea), and at other points virtually every positive reform was removed and many made worse.

If Sens. Martin and Scott are right, though, no one really cares about ethics reform anyway. What’s your view: Are they right?

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