Trimmed-down ethics commission plan gets committee's OK
A Senate committee gave the go-ahead Tuesday to a bill that would create a State Ethics Commission.
The vote was 5-0 in the Government Operations Committee.
S.184 now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee later this week and is expected to be debated on the floor of the Senate early next week. If approved, it will then go to the House.
Legislative leaders, including Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, have called establishing the commission a priority before adjournment.
Under the Senate proposal, a five-member board would review ethics complaints against high-level state employees and statewide elected officials. The commission and executive director would essentially review the complaints and either refer them to the attorney general or the state Human Resources Department for investigation and enforcement.
The board would not oversee ethics complaints against lawmakers. Those will be handled by separate ethics committees in the House and one being established in the Senate.
However, the commission would require candidates, including those running for the Legislature, to file financial disclosure forms listing income sources of $10,000 or more. Those same financial disclosures would be requested from high-level state employees including agency secretaries, commissioners and deputy commissioners.
The idea of the financial disclosures is to avoid conflicts of interest.
Under the commission's proposed rules, former lawmakers would be prohibited from being a lobbyist for one year after leaving the Legislature.
The commission's enforcement powers would be limited to the lobbyist provision, as well as bribery, though committee members said those cases likely would be referred to law enforcement.
"I think it's a good start. It's not as far as some would have liked, and it goes further than many would like," said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the Government Operations chair. "It sets up a structure that can be built on."
The bill went through multiple drafts. White, whose folder was thick, said it was the most revisions she had seen on a bill since work years ago on a campaign finance reform bill. Legislative counsel Betsy Wrask was in charge of the rewrites and high-fived a colleague in the hallway after the bill passed out of the committee.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, said the bill was a "shadow of its former self," but he and other committee members praised it as an important first step.
Vermont is one of a few states without a state ethics commission. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and Pollina said their hope was the commission could be established as a framework and then granted further powers later if needed.
If approved by the full Senate, the measure would go to the House for its consideration. Speaker Shap Smith and Donna Sweaney, chair of House Government Operations, said there is enough time before adjournment to consider the measure.
The original bill called for a full-time executive director and three investigators, but senators were spooked by the price tag, an estimated $650,000 a year. Now, the director would be part time and the budget for the commission would be about $90,000 to $145,000 a year.
That money request has not been approved yet by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Another unresolved issue is the establishment of the Senate Ethics Committee, which is planning to require senators to provide the same financial information that those under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission would have to share. There appears to be consensus on support for disclosing income sources of $10,000 or more, according to Benning, who also serves on the Rules Committee.
Senators and those under the purview of the State Ethics Commission would also have to disclose companies they had a controlling interest in and boards, commissions and associations on which they serve.
The House of Representatives has not required its members to file financial information. Smith, a Morristown Democrat, has said the House will review whether financial disclosure would be required if the Senate approves the establishment of the State Ethics Commission.
Until the 11th hour, the Senate bill included a proposal to prohibit those bidding on or holding contracts with the state from making campaign contributions to any candidate for the state office the contract is with. However, the committee scrapped that measure over concerns an individual with a small contract would be prevented from contributing to candidates in the governor's race.
White said she hoped advocates for the "pay-to-play" provision would push to have it included if and when the House has a chance to consider the legislation.
Pollina, who wanted to keep the contribution prohibition in place, noted afterward that it was ironic a motivating factor for the bill was allegations that Attorney General William Sorrell had hired a law firm in return for a campaign contribution. Authorities declined to pursue that allegation, and an independent counsel cleared him of other campaign finance accusations.
Under the Senate bill, the chair of the State Ethics Commission would be appointed by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. The four other members would be appointed by the Vermont affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the Human Rights Commission and the Vermont Bar Association.
The commissioners would serve staggered three-year terms.
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