Alaska editorial: Not very happy with ethics reform so far

Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Anyone who doubts the divide between fantasy and reality in the halls of the Capitol needs only to follow the ongoing struggle for meaningful ethics legislation.

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To hear some legislators talk, it would seem ethics reform is a new issue. Never mind that it's been three years since Attorney General Gregg Renkes met his ethical Waterloo, and the legal loophole that he wormed through still hasn't been closed.

Gov. Sarah Palin rode the public demand for higher ethical standards to a resounding victory last year over better funded and, perhaps, better known opponents. The mandate for change was so clear that lawmakers who showed little interest in ethics reform the previous two years suddenly claimed it to be their pet project this session.

Sadly, it has taken just seven weeks for the public to see how much of that talk is mere lip service.

Consider Senate President Lyda Green, the longtime Mat-Su senator. In her answer to the Frontiersman's biweekly Legislative Link feature about personal priorities for this legislative session, Sen. Green wrote: "Alaskans must have confidence in the integrity of their elected officials. That is why ethics reform is a top priority for me and the entire Senate Bipartisan Working Group. This session, we are working with our colleagues in the house and the Palin administration on legislation that will strengthen our laws and restore trust and faith in Alaska's government."

Sounds nice, but here's the reality check: Last week, the Senate over which Green presides approved Senate Bill 19, legislation dealing with executive branch ethics. Majority spinmeisters were quick to refer to it as "landmark" legislation, but the sad truth of the matter is that it's a watered-down bill that only scratches the surface of what is needed.

Less important than what the bill included is what was not included. Gov. Palin offered up several specific amendments. All but one were rejected. So much for teamwork.

Among the reforms that the Senate rejected were a restriction on gift-giving by lobbyists to state officials. A disappointed Gov. Palin called it a case of "politics as usual."

"I feel very strongly that if we are really going to clean things up, we must remove the ability of those individuals who are paid to influence decision-makers from providing gifts," she said. "To not adopt the provision is absolutely outrageous."

We couldn't agree more. We find room for more outrage, too, in the rejection of an amendment that would have stripped pensions from state officials and lawmakers convicted of a felony.

It is worth noting that Sen. Green voted with the majority on each of the defeated amendments. Sen. Gene Therriault, who represents a small portion of Mat-Su voters, voted for the governor's amendments. Mat-Su Sen. Charlie Huggins, meanwhile, did not attend Monday's session.

Senators were quick to point out after the final vote on the bill, that the rejected amendments could show up in future legislation. But this is hardly a hopeful beginning.

Alaskans deserve better.

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