Alaska editorial: Lawmakers should legislate the big stuff; for rest, just be honest

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Nothing like an FBI raid and corruption indictment to put legislators on their toes.

Or to put the question of ethics front and center.

Citizens might be forgiven for watching and enjoying legislators' current discomfort in Juneau. Lawmakers are asking themselves: Should I go to that reception? Have a drink at that bar? Lobbyists gather there. Do I want to be seen at lunch with so-and-so? Better be careful about all this. Yes, indeed, I'll keep a close watch on this reputation of mine - especially with the FBI and federal grand juries still on the hunt.

Lawmakers need to get a grip, an honest grip on what it means to be a public servant and what Alaskans expect from their lawmakers.

Legislate some basic common-sense rules that work for the public good. Limit campaign donations and require thorough disclosure. Require detailed descriptions of consultant work. Reveal and in some cases sever economic associations that could put a lawmaker between the rock of public duty and the hard place of private gain. Make clear that public duty takes precedence.

For the rest, be honest men and women.

Going to dinner with lobbyists who will make a pitch for their employer? That's all right - provided you pick up your own tab. Don't get all wrapped up over whether you sipped oil industry coffee or munched union finger food at a reception. It's sharing investments with lobbyists and their employers, picking up easy off-season work at easy money, writing legislation over private dinners, enjoying free vacations that will and should get you into trouble. Those are the real ethical fault lines.

Treating lobbyists like lepers, no matter who they represent, isn't going to make the Legislature better or more honest.

What Alaskans want and need are lawmakers who can keep their feet and still hear their consciences and constituents in the welter of pressure and interests at play around them. What Alaskans want and need are lawmakers who cannot be cultivated, cajoled, intimidated or rolled - but who can be persuaded by the merits of an argument and evidence of benefit to Alaskans. What Alaskans want and need are lawmakers whose integrity doesn't depend on ethics legislation, who don't dance around legalities but who draw an honest line, don't step over it and make sure that anyone who knocks on their doors knows where that line is drawn and respects it.

And yes, what Alaskans want and need are lawmakers willing to vote against their private interests - and the interests of their supporters - if that serves the public good.

It's not that complicated. Hard sometimes, but not complicated. Just don't fill the plate with too much food for thought about receptions and free coffee. Don't quibble over value limits of courtesy foods. There are much bigger dishes on the ethics reform menu. Pay your own way at the dinner table, always, fly at your own expense, and do your job.

The important thing is to be a lawmaker beholden only to your conscience, oath of office and constituents. Ethical behavior is sure to follow.

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