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Lawmakers take up first of many conflict of interest measures

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2008

JUNEAU - Lawmakers are conflicted over whether, and how, to change the rules that govern voting on legislation in which they may have a financial stake.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

In presenting a proposal to the House State Affairs Committee Thursday, Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he felt like a dog chasing its tail.

"The more I've worked with it, the more I realize the current process, albeit not perfect, is probably the best we are going to get," said Meyer in the peculiar position of testifying against his own resolution.

Nevertheless, Meyer said, he was glad to be having the discussion. A procurement officer for ConocoPhillips, one of Alaska's major oil producers, Meyer is one of several lawmakers who have come under fire when votes concern contentious oil and gas issues.

Meyer's resolution is one of at least five measures in the House and Senate that would change the conflict of interest rules that have been in place since the 1980s. His would allow a member to abstain if a majority votes in favor.

Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, has a resolution that would permit a lawmaker to abstain unless the entire body objects. He is equally uncertain whether his solution is the best, though he is adamant that the system needs change.

Under the current rules, legislators often ask to be excused from voting, but all it takes is one colleague's verbal objection and they are required to vote. No one can remember a lawmaker ever being allowed to abstain from voting.

Doogan questioned a system that requires a lawmaker vote even when their conscience tells them not to. The only option is to duck out of the chambers but even so they could be required to return.

Lawmakers also end up declaring conflicts just to protect themselves, when they don't really believe they have one, he said.

"So it looks to the public like pretty cavalier treatment of these things. Like anybody can kind of clear their throat (on the floor) and suddenly the lawmaker has to vote," Doogan said.

Doogan said if the rules are tightened up, clear standards for defining a conflict would be needed to prevent lawmakers from declaring one just to skip out of a vote.

Setting such guidelines is not easy, however, cautioned Peggy Kerns, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures ethics center.

"It's impossible to write a hard and fast rule. Does an outside person decide when a legislator gains personally or financially? I think not. A legislator has to decide for himself," Kerns said.

Kerns said states vary widely in how they deal with conflicts of interest, but she said one of the clearest statements she has seen is embedded in Kentucky's rules. It says the right of legislators to represent their constituencies is of such major importance that they should be barred from voting only in clear cases and if the matter is particularly personal.

It echoes Meyer's argument that barring him from voting unnecessarily would disenfranchise his constituents.

He said he makes it clear who he works for and his constituents can decide with their votes if he represents them fairly.

Meyer said he asks to be excused from voting on oil and gas issues on the House floor, not because he believes he has a conflict, but to be open.

"If I knew someone wasn't going to object, I'd think a lot harder about standing up to declare a conflict," he said.

The questions over conflict of interest began to crop up during the tumultuous debates over oil taxes that played out over the last two years against a backdrop of a federal investigation and convictions against former lawmakers on charges of corruption.

Matters came to a head during the latest special session when Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, questioned the propriety of allowing lawmakers to vote if they work for, or have family members that work for, the oil and gas industry.

LeDoux also has introduced legislation to rework the laws.

"It's very simple. Basically you can't vote if you have a conflict of interest," said LeDoux, who added that her bill would cover anyone from a fisherman working on fisheries issues to a union employee faced with union-busting legislation.

Some lawmakers feel that's too harsh for a part-time citizen Legislature in which many members hold down regular jobs over the interim.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said crafting a one-size-fits-all bill is difficult. Her proposal leaves it up to the leaders of the majority and minority caucuses to agree on whether to grant a lawmaker's request to be excused.

All the bills on the House side will at least get a review. The House State Affairs Committee plans to form a subcommittee that will look at all the proposals together.



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