The League of Women Voters supports the intent of H.B. 1909 to establish ethics requirements for legislators, state officials and employees, and lobbyists. However, we are concerned that there are some portions of the bill that are problematic, in particular, internal self-policing that may still be vulnerable to partisanship trumping ethics. In this time of badly eroded public trust and confidence, we feel it's vital that every effort be made to address ethics requirements correctly and well.
H.B. 1909 would, among other things, set up a legislative ethics committee in each house. If done properly and given the necessary powers, these committees could be very effective in giving guidance to fellow legislators, for setting up rules and procedures for avoiding conflict situations, and rules and procedures to follow when conflict situations arise, and possibly alerting individual members of their potential violation of ethics laws in their daily actions, thus resulting in improved behavior. This internal first step may help nip problems in the bud.
But, because the bill calls for each committee to be comprised of three legislators from the respective house, one a member of the minority party and two members of the majority party, it certainly appears that partisan considerations could prevail. There is also concern with how the committees would appropriately function internally. The bill indicates that for the committees to take up an ethics issue would be at the direction of the House speaker or Senate president; it is unclear whether other people or sources could raise ethics issues for consideration by the committees. Also, one could reasonably question if members are not too closely tied to each other to sit in judgment or conduct an impartial process.
The public wants and deserves assured standards of conduct and effective enforcement mechanisms. One suggestion is to bring in a member of the public to co-serve on these ethics committees, for increased impartiality and objectivity. Rather than two committee members from the majority party, either have one from each party or disregard party affiliation in selecting two committee members, and have the member of the public be the third committee member. After all, ensuring the integrity of the institution is the paramount objective.
We urge that H.B.1909 be amended to clarify and help ensure a more balanced approach. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.