Ethics bill ready for House debate

Bulky measure seeks to better define rules about accountability

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2007

Lawmakers are jockeying for a piece of the ethics reform action with half a dozen measures on the move, including a bulky 38-page omnibus bill that is ready for debate on the House Floor.

Sound off on the important issues at

The House measure contains about two dozen provisions that would tighten the rules for the executive and legislative branches of government, creating greater disclosure and accountability for outside financial interests.

"We are looking to put traffic lights and signals out there to better define where the road is and where it isn't," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks.

Four Senate bills, two already in the House, cover much of the same territory.

The push toward ethics reform comes on the heels of a rocky 2006 that featured an FBI raid on several lawmakers offices and federal bribery charges against former Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage.

No indictments have resulted from the raids, yet the prospect they could be pending has cast a pall over this year's Legislature, several lawmakers have said.

"There are people who would use this authority inappropriately and all of us are taking an extra burden because of those who would misuse it," said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

The committee discussion often has highlighted the challenges for citizen legislators trying to balance lives in the private and public sectors.

In the House Judiciary Committee, some of the most contentious debate had to do with reporting requirements and prohibitions on work done outside the legislature.

For example, the committee heard testimony from furniture maker Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wasilla, who said he was uncomfortable with making information about his clients and fee structure available to the public.

Meanwhile attorneys on the committee, Lindsey Holmes and Max Gruenberg, both Anchorage Democrats, said a provision barring lawmakers from representing clients before legislative or executive branch boards, commissions or agencies would make it virtually impossible for them to practice law.

"I don't think anyone was satisfied with the language that went out of (the committee) but we couldn't figure out what it should be," Coghill said, adding that a bipartisan team was trying to draft an amendment for the floor.

Some lawmakers have questioned the constitutionality of at least two provisions. One would deny a public pension for lawmakers convicted of a felony in connection with their official duties and another would prohibit spouses' from lobbying the Legislature.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said the bill is also missing key provisions that Democrats want to see, including a strengthening of bribery laws, added authority for the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics and a detailed description of what constitutes an insignificant financial interest for public officials.

Other provisions in the measure require that:

-Legislators be prohibited from taking pay for work associated with legislation or political or administrative action

-Legislators and staff disclose more details on personal services including the amount, the source, the number of hours worked, how the income was earned and what was done

-All candidates, except those from small municipalities, file campaign reports electronically with the Alaska Public Offices Commission

-Legislators and employees leaving office file financial disclosures

-Certain members of the administration be barred from lobbying for one year after leaving their employment.

The bill also details how a blind trust may be used, expands a prohibition on gifts from lobbyists and requires that the governor disclose any personal financial interest in the case of an executive pardon.

The House bill, if it passes, will be sent to the Senate, but it is unclear which legislation will ultimately emerge as the final vehicle for reform.

The Senate has four bills of which two are already awaiting their first hearing in the House. Coghill said he will press for the House bill to take precedence.

"A lot of people have taken ownership of this bill. They like the fact that the governor is getting credit for it," he said.

"There's no doubt that people on both sides of the aisle have had a huge impact on this bill. So I will push that our process is a little more thorough," Coghill added

Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French, R-Anchorage, suggested two bills would be appropriate, the governor's legislation to deal with executive ethics and the Senate bill to address legislative ethics.

But French said House and Senate leadership will have to hash that out.

"They need to broker some kind of global win-win for everyone so that everybody gets to have a piece of the ethics solution," French said.

There are some who would argue their work is not done even then.

Former Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, who joined with former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea to work on recommendations for ethics reform at Gov. Sarah Palin's request, calls the legislation a "fine job of closing loopholes."

"But if that's the end of the road, it's too weak," he said. "Real reform is what happens when you go beyond the obvious."

-----

The measures are HB 109, SB 19, SB 20, SB 64, SB 110.



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-3028
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING