States Forge Ahead on Ethics

Wyoming is the latest state to respond to Washington scandals with a new ethics code.

On the wind-swept, sagebrush plains of Wyoming, for more than a century a cattleman's handshake was as good as a contract, and a person's word was as good as law.

But even in America's least-populous state, the drumbeat of Washington scandals is prompting citizens to put in writing a code of ethics for its politicians.

A Wyoming citizens group last week launched a statewide campaign to put an ethics law on the November 1998 ballot. The move here is part of a broader trend among voters who aren't waiting for Capitol Hill to reform how politics is conducted in their state.

In Massachusetts, for example, legislators recently adopted a "no-coffee rule" which prohibits them from accepting even a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. This past weekend, 3,000 Bay State volunteers fanned out to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to limit campaign spending for state offices.

A number of states - including California, Arkansas, Maine and Colorado - approved campaign-finance reforms by ballot initiative last year. And "there's likely to be a lot more of this in the pipes," says Robert Stern, spokesman for the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws in Los Angeles. "Any time you have a federal scandal, you see states changing laws."

"What's going on in Washington right now with campaign finance and concerning the ethics of our leaders has a big impact," says Dave Ferrari, Wyoming state auditor. "[Citizens] don't want that in their state government," he says.

Curbing lobbyists' influence remains the primary objective of many states' ethics laws. But for a growing number of states, campaign-finance reform is an increasingly important issue.

The Massachusetts ballot initiative would prohibit national parties from transferring funds to state parties. It would also speed up disclosure by requiring campaign funding data to be available on computer databases as well as on paper.

In recent years, most states have enacted laws addressing the ethical behavior of public officials - some by referendum, most through legislative action - and experts believe public pressure for such laws continues to rise. Indeed, Wyoming and Vermont are the only states without some kind of ethics laws on the books.

"The public is very volatile right now. The confidence level in politicians is generally low," says Alan Rosenthal, professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in Princeton, N.J. "When there's a scandal, state legislatures will react by passing ethics legislation - they're passing these laws to pacify the public ... All the states are moving in this same direction now."

In Kentucky, the General Assembly established an ethics code in 1993 after several House members were indicted on federal charges of bribery following an FBI sting. Since then, there's been a dramatic change in the conduct of Kentucky politicians thanks to new laws, says Peggy Williams, assistant to the Legislative Ethics Commission in the state capital, Frankfort. "We've seen drastic changes, especially in the amount of money spent on legislators by lobbyists."

In fact, many states have have taken definitive steps, like the Massachusetts' no coffee rule, to outlaw these practices. The Wyoming initiative includes a comparable provision: banning all gifts - including honoraria for speaking engagements - except plaques of nominal value.

Critics of the new ethics rules tend to be outspoken only in private. But they often question the necessity of such limits. "[The rules have] gone overboard on some of these things," says one politician. "It goes too far to limit expenditures to $3, as they've done in Iowa recently."

But in Wisconsin, which has one of the strictest ethics codes in the nation, there are few complaints. "There's a high comfort level with the system here," says Roth Judd, director of the Wisconsin Ethics Board. "Public officials like it because it's easy to understand, and they don't have to make any decisions about what's OK."

And because the law forbids public officials from accepting meals, gifts, or travel, "it saves lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars a year," he quips.

Wyoming's effort to rein in its politicians still has a long way to go, but the road ahead looks promising. The citizens group needs 32,000 signatures by February to get the Wyoming Ethics Initiative on the ballot, but judging by recent polls, citizen support won't be a problem. A reported 70 percent favor the ethics initiative. There's even speculation that the 1998 Legislature will preempt the ballot by simply adopting the ethics code.

THE proposed law is intended to thwart government officials from putting private interests before public good, and addresses such perennial issues as nepotism, conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure for legislators and lobbyists.

Moreover, the law would give citizens recourse. "Now, there are no consequences if politicians act unethically," says Linda Stoval, coordinator of the campaign.

Curt Kaiser, one of the chief sponsors of the initiative, hopes the spread of ethics legislation will help set a new standard of conduct for politicians and citizens.

"It used to be that people learned ethics at their mother's knee," says Mr. Kaiser. Now, families are busier, and ethics doesn't get the attention it once did, he says. But because public leaders arguably set the example for youths, he adds, the conduct of politicians now carries greater significance. "How can we get our children to behave ethically and morally if our leaders are behaving in ways that aren't?"

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