editorial (2005-31)

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Public Service and Ethics

It seems obvious whose interests should be served—the people’s

Public Service and Ethics

When this year’s first round of ethical outrages in the Legislature was outed by the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz roundup as the Legislature was set to adjourn for 2005, Gov. Phil Bredesen’s reaction was to suggest calling a special session of the Legislature late this year to consider ethics issues.

Bredesen was immediately accused by his detractors, principally prominent Republicans, of “grandstanding.”

As the spring and summer progressed and more instances of ethics violations or questionable practices have unfolded, the criticism of Bredesen’s determination to seek ethics reform in the General Assembly has withered away.

Reform should go way beyond the watered-down efforts to police itself that passed the shocked Legislature just before adjournment, and the governor isn’t the only one who knows that.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are making strong recommendations on ways to bring ethics violations under control, and Bredesen has appointed a 12-member citizens’ panel of distinguished Tennesseans to review ethics issues and provide the governor with recommendations, which he’s expected to pass along to the General Assembly.

Knoxville Republican and former state Sen. Ben Atchley, long among the most respected members of the General Assembly, has been asked to co-chair that panel, along with former state Atty. Gen. Mike Cody, a Memphis Democrat and author of Honest Government: An Ethics Guide for Public Service . It would be hard to name two Tennesseans better suited to the task.

Both co-chairmen have been quoted as saying that establishment of an independent state ethics commission with strong enforcement powers is likely to get strong consideration as their panel discusses possible action on ethics questions. Indeed, Atchley included such a commission in legislation he sponsored about 15 years ago, but it got nowhere in the General Assembly at the time.

Atchley says he’s also in favor of limiting cash contributions to legislative campaigns. “Cash is not the way to do business on campaign contributions or expenditures,” he says. “You need to have some backup” in the form of established, traceable paper trails.

It’s pretty hard to predict how the Legislature will react to pressure to reform its ethics regulation, in spite of the lip service that the concept is being given in the current emotional climate.

Fresh on the heels of the January indictments in a bribery sting, the lawmakers adopted legislation that prohibits public officials from accepting consulting fees from anyone doing business or hoping to do business with the government they represent. The legislation requires those officials to disclose any source of income greater than $200 in a year, sets up criteria for determining residency of legislators, and—this is the kicker—requires newly elected legislators to take a four-hour

The idea that elected officials need special instruction in ethics is absurd enough. That those who do can learn to conduct themselves ethically after a four-hour course seems absolute folly, especially when you consider the kinds of proposed regulation that those sitting legislators turned back this year.

A list of the failed 2005 proposals includes those that would have: prohibited legislators from casting votes on matters involving a business or other venture in which they or their immediate family members have a personal financial interest; required lobbyists to file quarterly

They may have been in a state of shock from the indictments, but that’s hardly a valid reason to excuse themselves from basic ethical restrictions.

Rosalind Kurita, the state Senate Democrat from Lebanon who is running for her party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in next year’s election, has come up with a plan she says would “bring every aspect of the public’s business into the sunshine.”

Besides making every meeting of every committee at the Legislature an open meeting (in her words: “No secret budget meetings. No secret meetings about killing bills”), her proposals would require putting all legislative votes online for easy, instant access by the public, putting the Senate’s sessions on television and opening legislators’ personnel files to public inspection.

She says she wants lobbyists required to disclose how much they are paid, by whom, and for what purposes, and how much they are spending to influence public policy in Tennessee. She also says she wants to restrict the practice of former legislators becoming lobbyists, to ban cash contributions to political campaigns and to limit contributions by political action committees.

Lastly, she wants every ethics proposal introduced in the Legislature to be granted a full hearing and vote on the floor of the House and Senate, “so that good proposals that mean real reform can’t be killed in committee.” What her plan advocates, she says, would constitute the “toughest ethics laws in America.”

We can hardly imagine the General Assembly adopting all or even most of her proposals. But if it did, where would the harm be? Would the public be disserved by the toughest ethics laws in America, orwould it be the Nashville clique of lawmakers and lobbyists who’d be disserved if every public policy issue was made a real public matter?

As we said, Gov. Bredesen seems serious about reform of legislative ethics controls. We’ll have to see what his citizens’ panel recommends, what he pushes, and what the General Assembly adopts in its special session, if that transpires, or in the regular session next January. Then we’ll know better who gets served by ethics reform. Hint to those in office: It had best be the public.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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