If lawmakers are so afraid of the public, why do they choose to serve it?

This is a question surrounding ethics reform, which is again drawing attention in Augusta. And again, House Speaker Glenn Cummings and Senate President Beth Edmonds are pushing the legislation uphill.

Edmonds’ LD 2179 would open lawmaker financial holdings. Cummings’ bill, LD 2219, redefines conflict of interest and undue influence, caps contributions and makes new rules for inquiries into ethics complaints.

It would prohibit family from serving as campaign treasurers. And LD 2219 would allow the public – we the people who elect these legislators – to file official ethics complaints against those legislators. It’s only fair.

Yet these bills – which should be combined – get tripped by the political machinery that focuses too much on means, instead of ends. Last session, ethics reform stalled because lawmakers were unsure ethics were a problem.

They studied it, and discovered only a handful of ethics complaints (all discredited) over the past several years. Whether this proves ethics reform is unnecessary is debatable, there are too few cases for an accurate sample.

It does say the gang in Augusta is a pretty ethical bunch. Which is even more reason to embrace ethics legislation, as a harmless, preventative measure.

Still there’s concern, especially regarding the public. Some think allowing the public into the process could turn ethics policing from an internal legislative matter into a tool of political warfare. Perhaps.

In the current system, though, ethics complaints can be weapons, but ones only wielded by legislators. Although only six complaints are on record with the ethics commission, who knows how many were threatened or scuttled among high-stakes negotiations in the Capitol. (Let’s see a lawmaker admit to that.)

So it’s a tad disingenuous, we think, for politicians to fear a public process because it might turn political.

This is a weak argument, anyway. Mechanisms can be developed to separate meritorious complaints from the frivolous. A stiff criminal penalty for knowingly filing a false complaint, for example, could be a powerful deterrent.

If the intent of the ethics process is ensuring the highest possible standards for lawmakers, complainants should be held to a lofty threshold, too. It just makes sense.

As so much does about these reforms. The bills from Cummings and Edmonds call for simple changes that outline a firm framework to ethics, which is a fluid field.

Ethics regulate appearances and allegations. Rarely is a case clear-cut. This is why sets of cogent rules and requirements for ethical behavior are critical for guiding lawmaker behavior and upholding public confidence.

The topic has been studied to death. It is time for action. After all, legislators should have worse things to fear than embracing greater public scrutiny and disclosing additional financial information.

Such as looking like they don’t want to.


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