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Government reform bills finding their way into Capitol halls

Government reform bills finding their way into Capitol halls

Dustin Hurst
February 8, 2012
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February 8, 2012

Republican and Democrats in the Statehouse have introduced a number of government reform bills designed to cut down on lawmaker and public official abuses of power.

If legislative sessions are marked by certain issues, ethics measures might be it for the 2012 confab.

On Tuesday, Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, brought two bills to a House committee, one to add more oversight requirements to recall campaigns and another to remove House leaders who get DUIs while in office from serving in leadership posts.

Earlier this week, the full House approved Blackfoot Republican Dennis Lake's measure to keep per diem payments out of lawmaker retirement calculations. Last week, Lake introduced a bill to stop lawmakers from spiking their publicly funded pensions by taking high-paying state jobs after lengthy careers in the Idaho Capitol and that measure will be heard Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Democrats are pursuing a number of ethics reform measures, including creating an ethics commission with the attorney general's office.

Lawmakers see this flurry of activity as a good thing for the state and legislators. In committee Tuesday, House Assistant Minority Leader Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, praised Ellsworth's DUI and drug offense bill, saying it would help protect the integrity of the legislative body.

After the hearing, Higgins told IdahoReporter.com she is happy to see the measures and hopes lawmakers go further to clean up the Statehouse. “Well, I’m encouraged that issues that are being brought up that need to be addressed,” Higgins said.

Higgins is pleased both parties are taking steps to address problems this year as she has sensed a growing disdain for the antics of some of Idaho’s public officials. “People read the newspapers. People know what’s going in,” Higgins said. “We have heard from people all over the state that this needs to be addressed and cleaned up.”

And Democrats believe this is the year to do it. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, has sounded off multiple times about a "culture of corruption" that he says exists among Idaho's Republican public officials. “It’s about a culture," Rusche said in a Jan. 10 press conference. "Culture’s a hard thing to change and it takes a long time, but it is my belief we have a culture that is sick.”

Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, part of a working group to establish a bipartisan solution for an ethics commission, told IdahoReporter.com Tuesday that there isn't a coordinated effort for lawmakers to police themselves, but rather singular responses to public official mishaps.

“I think maybe we all saw these problems this summer and we all come with our solutions,”
King said. “I think it just happened that we are converging here.”

Idahoans saw multiple instances of questionable activity by public officials in the last 12 months. Treasurer Ron Crane was accused of misuse of his state-funded gas card, while Sens. John McGee, R-Caldwell, Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, took extra per diem payments for maintaining second homes during the 2011 legislative session while sleeping rent free at different locations.

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, came under fire last spring for helping to kill a bill that would have blocked a lawsuit in which he had a personal interest.

Even with the number of alleged lapses in the recent past, not everyone is on board with the ethics reform ideas. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, expressed concern of the narrow nature of Ellsworth’s measure in the committee meeting, a sentiment he confirmed in an interview with IdahoReporter.com.

“This is tragic, what we’re doing,” Anderson said, adding that he believes Ellsworth’s measure is a “witch hunt.”

Lest anyone think Anderson wants less oversight of ethical lapses by legislators, he says House rules cover problems if they’re enforced correctly. He just believes House rules need not be changed for singular events. “We’re going to say that drunk driving is the fundamental problem?” he asked.

Anderson would like to see his own ethics reforms, including how members are picked to serve on ethics commissions. Instead of allowing House leadership to choose the members, Anderson feels they should be elected by each caucus. “It would be an honor to serve,” Anderson says.

Internal matters, the Priest Lake Republican believes, should be handled by the commission and outward lapses, such as DUIs, felonies or other legal matters, should be presented to the board but investigated by the attorney general’s office.


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