Ethics Committee is on the agenda in the State House

MONTPELIER — Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina says he is optimistic the Legislature will pass an ethics bill and create a State Ethics Commission to review and act on ethics complaints for those involved in state government.

Lawmakers have hemmed and hawed for years on passing a tough ethics bill that would provide strong oversight over themselves and the executive branch of government. The Senate passed a measure last year very late in the legislative session that the House did not take up. Pollina, a Progressive, plans to introduce a bill that is nearly identical to last year’s and push for early action so both chambers have time to consider it.

Sen. Anthony Pollina

Sen. Anthony Pollina

“I do think this will be the year that we’ll be able to make this happen. I think you’ll find a stronger commitment from the leadership in the Senate than last time,” he said. “I feel that there’s more of a commitment to making this happen much more quickly.”

Pollina’s legislation would create the State Ethics Commission, a five member panel, “to accept, review, make referrals regarding, and track complaints of alleged violations of the State Code of Ethics, of governmental conduct regulated by law, and of the State’s campaign finance law…” It would also provide ethics training and issue advisory opinions regarding ethical conduct.

The committee would include one member appointed by each of the following:

— The chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court;
— The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union;
— The League of Women Voters of Vermont;
— The Vermont Bar Association; and,
— The executive Director of the Human Rights Commission.

In addition to creating the commission, Pollina’s bill would prevent one-year lawmakers and executive branch officials from working as lobbyists for one year after they leave their official positions. Pollina said the issue became more relevant as former Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin prepared to leave office and his top administration officials began seeking work elsewhere.

“There’s been a lot of revolving door activity going on in the last couple months, so I think it’s as important as ever,” Pollina said.

But not everyone agrees. Patti Komline, who until last fall served as a state representative from Dorset, is in the State House this legislative session as contract lobbyist working for herself. Under Pollina’s bill she would be barred from lobbying and earning a living.

“We work in that building for very little money,” Komline said of lawmakers. “It effects us financially, especially if you’re there for a long time during your working years.”

Komline was first elected in 2004 and said her experience as a lawmaker prepared her for certain things in Vermont’s workforce.

Patti Komline

Patti Komline

“We have a skill set here, and when you leave it’s a specific skill set and that impacts what you do,” she said. “I come into that profession not as a beginner and there’s not a lot of things I can do at this stage of my life where I wouldn’t be coming in as a beginner.”

Komline said lobbying is “an honorable profession” and lawmakers lean on lobbyists for facts and information they cannot obtain independently without staff. Former lawmakers or executive branch officials should avoid working on matters that would invite conflicts, she said, but should not be banned from pursuing a career that matches their experience.

Also included in the bill are mandated disclosures by lawmakers and executive branch officials. They would be required to list all sources of income that are above $10,000, as well as investment funds they own. Although the Senate bill failed last year, the Senate did pass rules requiring its members to file such disclosures.

Pollina added one section to his bill that has not been in previous iterations of ethics reform legislation — a ban on state contractors from donating to candidates who oversee the projects they are completing for the state. Under the provision, any entity or person who bids on a state contract would be prevented from providing political contributions to officials overseeing the contract until the bid is rejected, or if the bid is accepted, when the contract is complete.

New Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, is promising action in the Senate on ethics legislation, but not yet committing to any details.

“The Senate will be proceeding with an ethics bill. Right now, I am not familiar enough with the details of Sen. Pollina’s bill to say that is the specific approach to take right now,” Ashe said.

Pollina said he is hopeful new Republican Gov. Phil Scott will also commit to action on an ethics bill.

“During this campaign, on a number of occasions, now Gov. Phil Scott said that he supported the idea of an ethics commission,” Pollina said. “He said that he supported it but that he didn’t want to spend millions of dollars on it, or something to that effect. The bill as written really only has a part-time staff person. It’s clearly not millions of dollars.”

Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley indicated in an email that Scott plans to review Pollina’s legislation before taking a position.

“The Governor is committed to restoring Vermonters’ faith and trust in state government, and that extends to a need for more clearly established ethics standards, and greater transparency. He is open to a conversation on legislation to establish clear standards, but would need to further explore how this legislation would be implemented, and ensure there is clarity around any proposed guidelines,” Kelley wrote.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, did not immediately return a message.

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