States Push New Ethics Reforms

Scandals and unbalanced elections have led to proposed changes in campaign finance. SWEEPING IN THE STATE HOUSE

ETHICS reform is resurfacing as a serious political issue in state capitols all over the United States. "States are experimenting in many different areas" of ethics-reform legislation, says Frederick Herrmann, former chairman of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws, in Lexington, Ky.

Reform legislation has been prompted in part by several recent state-house scandals. In Arizona, a police sting operation early this year resulted in several state legislators being indicted on charges of bribery and money laundering. In South Carolina, several lawmakers were indicted and charged with bribery in connection with an FBI undercover investigation involving a gambling scheme.

The current reform trend centers on campaign-spending limits and public financing of elections, Dr. Herrmann says. About half the states now have some form of public financing of elections.

Public financing "allows candidates of limited means to run for office," Herrmann says. In New Jersey's last gubernatorial election, public financing helped bring out "a good field of candidates," he says.

In Michigan, campaign-finance reform laws require candidates to disclose how much money they received and spent before and after an election. The state also publicly finances gubernatorial races.

Minnesota provides public campaign financing to all party-designated state constitutional and legislative offices as well as US Senate and House offices. The state is also considering legislation to further limit how much money candidates can receive from political action committees (PACs).

Connecticut passed a bill last year that prohibits lobbyists from making contributions to candidates or their PACs during legislative sessions.

New legislation is also being proposed here in Massachusetts. Twenty-eight lawmakers, Gov. William Weld (R), and Boston-based Common Cause, a government watchdog group, support sweeping campaign-finance and ethics-reform legislation. A new bill, introduced last week, would:

Tighten limits on PAC and lobbyists' campaign contributions.

Place restrictions on candidates' use of campaign money.

Strengthen enforcement of ethics rules.

The reform package is needed because fewer new candidates run for political office in Massachusetts, says Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause. From 1982-88, the number of new candidates running for office fell by half, while PAC contributions doubled during that time, Ms. Wilmot says. In the 1990 state elections, 70 percent of the races were financially noncompetitive, with incumbents far outspending challengers, she adds.

The new bill, called the Act for Accountable Politics, "enhances and improves and adds accountability to government," says Rep. Stephen Doran, a co-sponsor.

The bill limits lobbyists' contributions to $100 to elected officials other than those representing their voting districts. It also establishes different ceilings for the total amount of PAC money candidates can receive during each election period.

The act also requires that individuals who contribute more than $200 to political campaigns must identify their occupation and employer. Such a provision is a common trend in campaign finance reform, Herrmann says. "When you get contribution information - in many states you're getting [only] names and home addresses," he says. "But if you knew each of those people worked in the same company, it would be a different picture."

The bill would also limit the amount of campaign money incumbents can keep from one election to the next. All leftover campaign money would be returned to the State Campaign Reform Fund after the election.

This provision would prevent incumbents from developing so-called campaign "war chests" that scare away new challengers.

Massachusetts' comprehensive campaign finance reform package is much more effective than the state's previous record of piecemeal reforms, Wilmot says. It too often happens that once a reform bill is passed, it simply opens up new loopholes, she says.

Many states lack strong, independent ethics agencies - a fundamental ingredient in good government, Herrmann says. "We have to take a hard look at ethics agencies.... [They] should be as independent as possible. Their budgets should be as independent as possible."

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