About a year ago, former Gov. Cecil Andrus shared with me some displeasure that the Idaho Governor’s Cup, a charity he helped bring into existence, had morphed. Once it was a modest education fundraiser. Today, it has political undertones that critics contend gives Idaho government an aura of corruption.
The Governor’s Cup, which raises money for scholarships for Idaho schoolchildren, often also has as its benefactors legislators, who get can travel, hotel and admission expenses often paid by lobbyists. Such all-expenses-paid vacations are perfectly legal under Idaho’s government ethics laws, so long as the payor doesn’t connect the gift with a vote or other official action. Furthermore, some participants have complained, mostly privately, that attendance and sponsorships are necessary “costs of doing business” with the state government.
Heightened scrutiny of the Governor’s Cup prompted some legislators to sit out the affair in 2016. The 2017 Idaho Governor’s Cup is happening as I write, and we don’t know to what degree legislators remain worried about appearances. But problems surrounding the Governor’s Cup will, no doubt, linger into the 2018 legislative session and into the tenure of the new governor. Fortunately, even minor reforms and operating adjustments would go a long way to boosting confidence in government integrity in our state:
- The Legislature must place limits on gifts to its members. Though it is perfectly possible for a lobbyist or other interested party to avoid connecting a vote or other official action to a gift, the fact remains that such gifts foster ingratiation. Once seemingly or in reality beholden, the stink surrounding any vote will cast doubts on casts doubts on the sanctity of all officeholders’ decisions and the motives behind them.
- At a minimum, the state’s lobbyists disclosures should be updated to make expenses on behalf of legislators more transparent. It is true that lobbyists must report certain amounts spent on legislators, including those from events such as the Idaho Governor’s Cup. But reporting of Fall lobbyist expenditures does not happen until the end of January, five months after they occurred. And even then, you’d have to know which of hundreds of lobbyists paid for a legislator’s Governor’s Cup attendance in order to find the paperwork noting the occurrence. That’s not transparency in government. That’s obfuscation.
- Some lobbyists have told me they feel compelled to attend or to sponsor the Governor’s Cup in order to curry favor with the state’s top elected official. Such a pay-to-play atmosphere, real or perceived, also makes people suspicious about the government and all its dealings. “Trust me, we’d never do anything untoward” is hardly an assurance to many casual observers of government functions. Either the governor has to stop his participation as event’s central figure or the Cup’s reliance on businesses and lobbyists entangled in state policymaking has to end.
The Idaho Governor’s Cup, measured by its outcomes of rewarding handsome scholarships to deserving Idaho high schoolers, is a successful venture deserving of accolades. No doubt it can continue to be a success even after reforms are implemented that boost integrity and government transparency.