Backsliding on ethics – or only fine-tuning?

Shortly before legislators adjourned their 2008 short session last month, they tinkered with the State Government Ethics Act and new lobbying laws adopted after scalding revelations about corruption in high places.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill making “clarifying changes” to several laws designed to prevent repeat episodes of vote buying, bribery and other ethical transgressions that put several legislators in prison, including former House Speaker Jim Black.

Some changes are good. For example, advisory opinions on compliance must be published within 30 days, rather than at least annually. Others raise questions whether they constitute mere tinkering - or represent the first in a series of changes undermining the impact of those laws.

But it's hard to escape the impression that these changes dilute new laws that legislators adopted in the hopes of persuading the public they would no longer tolerate the influence-peddling of lobbyists, a pay-to-play system that seemed to require hefty campaign contributions and an indifference to the decline of ethical behavior among public officials.

Lawmakers took three actions that have prompted concern about their commitment to tough new ethical standards:

It'll now be easier for lobbyists or their clients to wine and dine legislators. Under previous practice, lobbyists holding receptions were required to give 10 days written notice. Among other things, the public would know in advance of these sessions and could find out who was attending. Under the change adopted in House Bill 2542, those who wish to entertain House or Senate members at a reception only have to give 24 hours notice. Obviously that will make it a lot harder for the public to know about such events, let alone show up to see who's drinking or eating on which group's tab.

It'll now be easier to fill out required financial disclosure forms. The old law asked legislators specific questions on financial disclosure. It also asked one catch-all question: Did the official have any other alliances or activities that might represent a conflict of interests? That question now asks whether there is any other information that might help the ethics commission do its job.

And it relieves the State Board of Ethics of the responsibility to evaluate lawmakers' economic disclosure forms. Among other things, that might alert both the board and the legislator whether there was a potential conflict of interest. By deleting the requirement for evaluations, legislators have clarified this much: They don't seem to be interested in the answer.

Perhaps there are points in House Bill 2542 that provided beneficial clarity for implementing the new state ethics laws.

But by relaxing the law in these three ways, it's hard to conclude legislators in 2008 have the same commitment to high ethical standards they professed just a couple of years ago. If they do, they've chosen a curious way to show it.