Ethics-in-government drive sputters

Efforts to toughen state laws to safeguard the integrity of government officials may be running out of political steam. At least 34 states and the District of Columbia now have either ethics commissions or campaign-fund reporting measuers on their books. But with more than half the nation's legislatures having wound up their 1981 sessions, it appears this year will not be remembered for passage of significant new campaign financial disclosure or conflict-of-interest statutes.

Leaders of Common Cause and others dedicated to such pursuits, however, are anything but discouraged and leave litte doubt they intend to keep pushing for better laws to protect sales from corruptive influences.

While disappointed that no additional states have provided for ethics commissions to oversee compliance with restrictive measures concerning campaign fund-raising and spending and the conduct of public officials and office-seekers , these groups are pleased with progress being made in Texas.

Legislation signed into law June 19 by Republican Gov. William P. Clements, will for the first time in Texas prohibit state senators, representatives, and members of the executive branch from accepting contributions during or within 30 days before and after a law- making session.

The Texas ethics code also restricts -- for the first time -- campaign donations to less than $100 in cash for both officeholders and candidates. Similar limits apply to individual campaign committees. So-called political action committees set up by various special interest groups, however, are exempt.

Another key elements of the new law, sponsored by Texas House Speaker Billy Clayton (D), requires all former officeholders and candidates to file regular reports concerning disposition of funds remaining in their campaign accounts, until the last penny is spent.

How much further Texas lawmakers might be willing to go toward even tougher campaign financing measures may hinge at least in part on the recommendations of a newly created 150-member commission that is to study a broad range of proposals during the next 18 months.

"We did not get what we wanted, but this is a good start," asserts Donna Mobley, executive director of Texas Common Cause, who helped lobby for the new ethics code.

Speaker Clayton's sponsorship of the measure came in the wake of his acquittal last fall of fraud, conspiracy, and extortion in an alleged scheme to buy his influence in reopening a multimillion-dollar public employee health insurance contract.

The veteran legislative leader, now in his fourth term at the House rostrum, testified during the trial that he thought the $5,000 he received was a campaign contribution from organized labor and said he intended to return it at a later date.

The new law, which become effective Sept. 9, would ban both the payment and acceptance of such gifts even if for political campaign purposes and with not strings attached.

All but two of these measures have been enacted or toughened in the past seven years, according to Marcy Stephens of the national Common Cause staff.

She and other backers of campaign- finance reporting and anticonflict-of-interest legislation attribute the slowed pace in this direction to lawmaker preoccupation with other issues, including state fiscal problems and legislative and congressional redistricting.

New Mexico legislators, for example, passed over a proposal to extend financial disclosure requirements to members of the state executive branch, including the governor. Meanwhile, at least one state -- Maryland -- has somewhat weakened its disclosure laws by exempting state college faculty members and members of the Senate advisory board from periodic report filing concerning their outside financial inte rests.

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