Idaho has a citizen Legislature. People from all walks of life pile in through the doors of the Statehouse to govern for just a few short months each year. We expect and understand that they have financial and personal interests outside of their legislative duties. It’s not asking much to do a better job disclosing them. Disclosure should be easily accessible, plentiful and permanent. Lawmakers engaged in disclosure shouldn’t sugarcoat or obfuscate. They need not be coy about who they are and what interests color their decisions.
In May, an otherwise mundane story in Burley’s Weekly News Journal surprised me. The story was written by Lisa Dayley, who worked for me at the (now defunct) South Idaho Press in the 1990s. Dayley wrote that the Minidoka County School District expected a 22 percent increase in the cost of health insurance. That was not the alarming part.
What shocked me was this: Dayley wrote, “The school board’s insurance representative, Dean Cameron, plans to look for cheaper rates.”
I’ve known Cameron for years. I used to buy insurance from him. Until May, I never knew that Cameron was the school district’s insurance agent. I don’t recall a single time Cameron told the Senate he doubles as an insurance rep for the district.
In fact, Cameron’s standard disclaimer to his colleagues goes something like this, as it did on March 27, during the consideration of the public schools’ budget: “I’d like to disclose potential conflicts of interest although I don’t believe I have them.
First, my wife works as a teacher’s aide in my school district. Secondly, my business, for which I derive some of my income, does some work with my local school district even though I am not compensated by that work.”
His April 4 disclosure, on a second version of the public schools’ budget, mentions his wife and his business “although I am not directly compensated from it.” I do not know how significant the words “directly compensated” are.
Nevertheless Cameron never just flat out says, “I am the insurance agent for the school district, and I represent the district in matters pertaining to health insurance.” I don’t understand why.
And while Lt. Gov. Brad Little said Cameron’s conflict of interest would be recorded in the Senate’s official record, the Journal, that document only notes that Cameron “disclosed a possible conflict of interest under applicable law.” The Journal does not describe what that conflict might be in that or any of the other 43 instances senators disclosed a possible conflict of interest.
On the flip side, during debate on the insurance exchange in the House, Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene, tried to disclose his potential conflict of interest but was derailed.
Said Malek, “I do work for a company that is involved in the health care industry, and this bill may affect …”
“Duly noted,” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R- Twin Falls, interrupted after six (6) seconds.
Were Malek allowed to continue, the 69 other members of the House might have learned something valuable about Malek’s support of the insurance exchange: Malek is the legal affairs director for the Dirne Community Health Center, which, before and after the Legislature’s vote on Obamacare, received federal grants as part of the law. I tend to think details like that matter. Maybe it would have helped shape the debate. It certainly could not hurt it.
Information is useful, to House and Senate colleagues and to Idaho voters and constituents. The disclosure of conflicts of interest in the Idaho Legislature are pitiful at best, dishonest at worst.
And just as I did at the start of this column, by disclosing my past relationships with the Weekly News writer and an insurance agent/state senator, it’s not hard or time consuming either.