Empire editorial: It's time for real checks on lawmakers

Let's end the practice of requiring legislators to vote on bills in which they have an interest.

Posted: Sunday, May 20, 2007

What's wrong with this picture? A lawmaker, who also happens to be an employee of an oil company, introduces a bill regarding the state's oil spill prevention and response account.

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Once the discussion shifts to oil taxes, the legislator understandably attempts to recuse himself due to his conflict of interest.

Instead of allowing the lawmaker to excuse himself, a colleague objects, forcing him to weigh in on the discussion. So the lawmaker explains why he believes a tax increase isn't in the state's best interest, and the proposal is quashed.

That legislator, and others in similar situations, are following the rules. Even Gov. Sarah Palin agrees there's nothing illegal about doing business this way.

"He is following the rules that are in place today," she said.

There's a difference, however, between illegal and improper.

The governor has repeatedly said she wants to restore public trust in our political system, but she can't do it alone. Some brave souls in the Legislature should make sure the rules are changed.

No other Legislature in the country allows the same latitude Alaska does regarding conflicts of interest.

"You are unique in this," said Michael Josephson, an Outside expert the Legislature hired to conduct an ethics seminar at the start of the session.

For Josephson, the ethics test is simple. Just ask yourself: Would a reasonable, fair-minded person think that a conflict might affect my judgment?

"When in doubt, recuse," Josephson said.

Under current rules, a lawmaker may try to recuse himself but may have to vote anyway if a colleague objects to the request. The objection may even be made anonymously. Verbal objections are not recorded by name in House and Senate journals.

Legislators say conflicts are inevitable in a "citizen's" legislature. Some say they can set their own boundaries.

Their track record shows otherwise.

Common sense - not to mention recent federal corruption indictments of current and former state legislators - tells us that abuse will happen. Alaskans need more assurance that their best interests will be kept in mind.

Legislators cite another check on conflicts of interest: disclosure. That's not working very well, either. Even the executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Brooke Miles, says the system for making these disclosures known "is not very responsive to the public."

The records are available only on paper at the commission's Anchorage and Juneau offices. They could be more accessible, but in 2003, then-Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, was able to successfully exempt the Legislature from filing disclosures electronically.

As a result, the records, many of them handwritten, are not available on the Internet. Many are incomplete or illegible, and Miles says 80 percent of the forms have errors.

Papers such as the Juneau Empire go to some lengths to post the documents on the Web. (To check out the records, visit www.aklegislature.com/disclosures.) But it shouldn't be that hard.

It's time to put real checks on legislators' use of power to benefit themselves or their employers. We need to end the practice of requiring lawmakers to vote on bills in which they have a personal stake. We also need to make financial records available on the Internet to bring potential conflicts to light.

If there aren't enough brave souls in the Legislature to do that, maybe it's time for voters to get rid of these feet-draggers and elect people who will.

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