Rules on Ethics Create Side Effects in Statehouses
Lawmakers see benefits and perils of new anticorruption laws
NEW ORLEANS — IN response to a series of scandals, state legislatures across the country have begun implementing measures requiring higher standards of conduct among their members, less contact with lobbyists, and more open ways of doing business.
But now that most of the new rules are in place, some lawmakers are wondering when is enough too much.
``We might have gone overboard with some ethics laws,'' says Walter Baker (R), a state senator in Kentucky. ``The end result is that there has been an inhibition on the operation of state government.''
Paul Hillegonds (R), the Co-Speaker of Michigan's House of Representatives, is also worried: ``My attitude has changed. I now believe you can get too involved in reform. The more detailed you get, the more change there is, the more the public and the press will focus on the negative.... I'm wary of going too far.''
Ethics reform is important to Mr. Baker and Mr. Hillegonds because they both come from states where scandals have rocked their legislatures. In Kentucky, the former House Speaker, two sitting legislators, and five former lawmakers were convicted in 1992 of racketeering and extortion. Last year in Michigan, the director of the House Fiscal Agency was indicted for diverting nearly $2 million of tax money to himself, his friends, and staff.
Nor were the scandals just there. In Arizona, seven state lawmakers two years ago were convicted of money laundering and bribery; in South Carolina, five legislators were convicted in 1990 on bribery charges and 14 others were indicted; and in Washington last year, the state's Public Disclosure Commission fined both Democratic and Republican party caucuses $100,000 for the illegal use of public facilities and legislative staffs.
``It is something that happens, it is very serious,'' Alan Rosenthal, a professor of political science at Rutger University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said of the scandals. ``But it is an indictment of specific individuals, not an indictment of legislatures generally. In fact, I would argue that legislators and legislatures are more ethical than they used to be.''
Speaking before the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures here last week, Mr. Rosenthal continued: ``The standards have changed, they keep changing. The bar keeps being raised, and legislators have to keep jumping over higher and higher bars.''
In Michigan, for example, the state House money-diversion scandal prompted lawmakers to make the financial records of the legislature open to the public, while a new bill there calls for the abolishment of honoraria and office expense funds for lawmakers. ``I don't know of any better way to address a problem like this than through more open disclosure,'' Hillegonds says.
Meanwhile, ethics legislation passed in Minnesota and Iowa this year are restricting the influence of lobbyists. Lawmakers in Minnesota are now prohibited from taking gifts from a lobbyist, while lobbyists are required to report any expenditure over $5. In Iowa, new laws bar lobbyists from giving lawmakers ``food, beverages, registration, or scheduled entertainment,'' with a per person cost of $3 or more.
Some of the toughest reform legislation has come out of Kentucky in response to the 1992 FBI sting there. Not only do new laws tighten up on lobbyist registrations and expenditure reporting, but they also restrict lawmaker contact with other state agencies.
``We have placed the restrictions on ourselves,'' Baker says. ``I'm not supposed to write a letter to an agency of the state government on behalf of a constituent to ask them to do anything special. Well, what is special? If it's my constituent and he or she has a problem with state government, I'm going to wade in there to help. But I'm not sure the ethics commission would agree.''
Lawmakers attending the New Orleans conference also complained that today's political climate, in which the press emphasizes negative stories and opinion polls, show low confidence in officials, have added to a cynical atmosphere.