Ethical lapses spur reforms in legislatures

As questions about conflicts of interest mount, states like Rhode Island consider making lawmaking a full-time job.

The American ideal of the disinterested citizen-legislator is losing its luster. From Washington State to Rhode Island, voters are taking a closer look at how part-time lawmakers balance public responsibilities and private interests.

It's tradition for Americans from varied backgrounds and professions to leave behind their regular duties, like the mythical Cincinnatus and his plow, and serve for a short time as lawmakers. Today, lawmakers in 40 of the nation's 50 state legislatures spend part of the year carrying out the people's business, and the rest of the year running their own.

Here in Rhode Island, the legislators serve only six months of the year. Many are lawyers. Some are teachers, doctors, and firefighters. But, unlike Cincinnatus, not all are leaving their work behind when they step into the statehouse - which is making Rhode Island a flash point in the debate over lawmakers and conflicts of interest.

Last month, three legislators here, including the Senate president and House majority leader, were accused of ethics violations. Their alleged transgression: consulting for businesses that stood to benefit from their legislative work.

The lawmakers technically did not break any rules, but news of their close business ties has prompted outcries from residents weary of ethical misconduct by CEOs and elected officials alike.

A recent uptick in public scrutiny of legislators' financial dealings is evident across the country, say experts. They see the public as raising its standards of behavior for state officials, which could soon pressure legislatures to professionalize and cast aside one of their most cherished traditions.

"People are very negative toward their politicians now, and part of that is the result of part-time legislators getting caught," says Alan Rosenthal, a public- policy professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The scandal here unfolded after the Providence Journal published information about a legislator's ties to the CVS Corp. Soon after, questions surrounding the ethical behavior of other legislators surfaced. One received $70,000 from CVS, only one year after having led an effort to defeat legislation the company opposed. Though not illegal, it does raise serious conflict-of-interest questions.

Even in a state notorious for political corruption, the latest revelations are causing an unusually public furor. "We need more accountability for our legislators," says Bill Sheridan, browsing at the Providence Shopping Mall recently.

Many experts believe the key to doing that in Rhode Island, and elsewhere around the country, is making lawmaking a full-time profession.

Because Rhode Island lawmakers only earn $11,200 a year, most continue working in other jobs. Many pick up consulting work on the side, which often relates, at least partially, to legislation.

As in most states, legislators here are required to recuse themselves from working on bills that will affect a company with which they do private business. But the wording of the regulation is loose and open to interpretation.

The public, however, seems increasingly intolerant of any relationship at all.

The president of New Jersey's state Senate, for example, was voted out of office last November after reports surfaced that he had consulted for municipalities within his own district. A legislator in Wisconsin is under fire for acting as a consultant for a construction company that was recently awarded a lucrative contract by the state. In Washington, a state senator who is a partner in a vineyard was criticized for her votes benefiting wineries.

Completely insulating lawmakers, however, from any kind of business ties is difficult. "There is virtually no way to eliminate conflicts of interest short of paying people a lot more money," says Karl Kurtz of the National Center for State Legislatures in Denver. That might be exactly what many states must do. Now, only nine legislatures pay their members a competitive full-time salary, an average of about $69,000, according to the NCSL. Most earn less than $15,000.

Larger salaries might be even more necessary given the growing amount of work passing through legislators' offices. Since the Reagan administration, the federal government has shifted responsibility for a variety of services to the states.

But in most states, calls to make the legislature a full-time institution meet with a chilly response from voters.

"It doesn't matter in the public's eyes how long they have to meet. People still think they only start working the last week of the year," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Still, Joseph Polisena, a senator in Rhode Island's legislature, has proposed a law that would allow residents to vote for a full-time legislature on this November's ballot. "With all the controversy here and accusations, people's trust is slowly slipping away," he says. "A full-time legislature would end that."

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