Empire editorial: Governor needs to step in to restore legislative integrity

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Too many Alaska legislators still don't get it. A surprising number act as if they don't have a grasp on the basic concept of conflicts of interest.

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Although the Alaska Legislature passed a tougher tax rate on the oil industry at the special session that ended Friday, legislators with direct and indirect financial ties to the industry participated in the decision-making in ways that would never be allowed in many other states.

In spite of the corruption scandal that has sobered up many at the Capitol, legislators continued to take advantage of the state's lax ethics laws when they could.

A couple of lawmakers, such as House Speaker John Harris and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, do, however, deserve kudos for speaking out against practices that allow special interests to steer the Legislature.

During the special session, Harris, R-Valdez, banned cell phone calls and notes passed from the gallery to lawmakers during floor debate. Lawmakers faced the threat of expulsion from the chamber if they accepted calls or notes.

That was a dramatic change from the previous year, when observers watched legislators' votes change after they received phone calls on the floor or were handed messages from oil industry members.

LeDoux, R-Kodiak, deserves credit for her plea to abandon a practice that seriously undermines the integrity of the Legislature.

Under current rules, legislators are supposed to state their conflicts of interest on matters before the body and request to be excused from voting. But if just one colleague asks that they participate in the debate or vote, the presiding officer must require the person with the conflict to join in.

Using this legislative rule, lawmakers cover for each other and can be counted on to let their colleagues vote, despite glaring financial conflicts.

Unfortunately, LeDoux alone spoke out against this practice, with her colleagues completely ignoring her call for a more ethical approach.

In one special session debate, for instance, Rep. Bill Thomas Jr., R-Haines, requested that Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, participate despite his financial connections. Meyer works as a facilities support coordinator for ConoccoPhillips.

Thomas said he wanted to hear what Meyer had to say: "I know very little about the oil industry, and he does."

In other words, Thomas didn't want to do his own homework for his constituents.

There's nothing wrong with asking oil industry members for their take on the issues at hand. Lawmakers should, to get a well-rounded view. But oil industry executives and lobbyists were not in short supply at the Capitol during the special session. Thomas and other lawmakers had plenty of opportunities to get information about the oil industry without obtaining it from one of their own and compromising the integrity of the Alaska Legislature.

The Legislature badly needs tougher rules on what constitutes a conflict of interest, which is usually considered a financial connection that prevents a public servant from acting impartially, or the appearance of such a conflict.

In most other places, Meyer's employment with ConoccoPhillips would be considered a blatant financial conflict, but not in the Alaska Legislature, where one must be an owner in the company to actually have a conflict. Meyer did ask to be excused in committee and floor votes, however, because of the "appearance of a conflict."

How legislatures in other states deal with conflicts of interest by lawmakers' spouses also should be examined. And, if trust in the Legislature is to be restored, the state should drop the rule that allows lawmakers to force their peers to vote despite conflicts.

During the last regular session, Gov. Sarah Palin was urged to back off legislative ethics reform and focus instead on reform in the administrative branch. She did, giving the Legislature the benefit of the doubt.

But it's clear that lawmakers are not going to police themselves and that they won't hesitate to protect each other in their financial conflicts.

This coming session, Palin needs to push ahead on ethics reforms for the House and Senate herself. Just as she fought - and won - an uphill battle for oil tax reform, she needs to gather allies and push for rules that restore the integrity of the House and Senate.

The governor would do the Legislature a favor by instituting tougher conflict-of-interest rules. With such rules, maybe Alaskans could at last regain trust in their lawmakers.

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