Lawmakers mull ethics

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers are contemplating the creation of an ethics commission, how to pay for it and what options they might have if they can’t find the money.

The House Government Operations Committee discussed a proposed bill Thursday that would do such things as require lawmakers to disclose their assets to determine possible conflicts of interest, a move that would bring Vermont in line with the practices of the majority of states.

According to the Joint Fiscal Office, Vermont is one of eight states that does not have an ethics commission, and one of three states that does not require financial disclosures for lawmakers or members of the executive branch.

The Senate is also considering its own bill to create an ethics commission.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

ACLU-Vermont Executive Director Allen Gilbert discusses the need for an ethics commission Thursday. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“I just encourage people to understand, that from the outside, the lack of an ethics commission, it’s really a matter of the perception being more harmful than the reality,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gilbert also noted that, without an ethics commission, lawmakers cannot defend themselves against accusations of conflict of interest.

Committee Chairwoman Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor — who sponsored the ethics commission bill — raised the question facing any lawmaker looking to create something new.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Rep. Donna Sweaney discusses the ethics commission bill Thursday. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“How do we pay for it?” Sweaney asked. “We know this will cost money we do not have.”

Estimates from the Joint Fiscal Office peg the cost of creating an ethics commission at somewhere ranging from $250,000 and $370,000, and require the hiring of three new people.

Sec. of State Jim Condos compared the cost of an ethics commission with the price of not having one.

“What is the cost of having good transparency and a good democracy?” Condos asked. “There are many opportunities to find savings, but you have to be willing to drill down and you have to want it.”

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Auditor Doug Hoffer (left) and Sec. of State Jim Condos offer testimony Thursday on the ethics commission bill. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Condos was joined by Auditor Doug Hoffer, who offered examples of audits conducted by his office that resulted in real savings.

As an example, an audit of health care delivery for the Department of Corrections found providers were throwing away unused medication. By returning that unused medicine, corrections saved $470,000 in 18 months.

Condos offered suggestions that lawmakers could implement if they are not ready to fund the creation of an ethics commission, such as requiring every municipality and state agency and department to adopt policies related to conflict of interest and code of conduct.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Rep. Dennis Devereux listens to testimony Thursday on the proposed ethics commission bill. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Currently, municipalities have the option to create such policies, and Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) offers templates to create such policies. Karen Horn, director of public outreach and advocacy for VLCT, said her organization would not oppose such a mandate.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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