House advances ethics commission

MONTPELIER — The House has approved creation of an ethics commission to oversee political entities in Vermont following a lengthy debate on the floor.

The bill, S.8, was passed on a voice vote after about two hours of debate Monday. Some lawmakers raised concerns about having to disclose certain information, particularly the sources of income of spouses or domestic partners.

Rep. Maida Townsend, D- South Burlington, chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, told her colleagues Vermont is among a small group of states that do not have a central ethics policy or an ethics commission. She said Hawaii became the first to enact such measures in 1968.

Rep. Maida Townsend

“Today, some 50 years later, we here in Vermont are among fewer than just one handful of states remaining without a central ethics policy or an ethics commission,” she said.

Vermont has also received failing grades from the Center for Public Integrity on accountability for all three branches of government, Townsend said. The state’s citizen Legislature makes it a “very special and different place,” she said, but government in Vermont still owes the public “assurances of respect, integrity and propriety.”

The legislation would create a five-person ethics commission, with a parttime executive director, that would serve as a collection point for complaints and send them on to the appropriate authorities. The commission would have no investigative or punitive authority of its own.

Complaints related to governmental conduct that is regulated by law, or complaints about campaign finance law, would be sent to the state’s attorney general or a state’s attorney with proper jurisdiction.

Complaints related to the Department of Human Resources’ code of ethics would be sent to the commissioner of the department. Complaints involving members of the House or Senate would be sent to their respective chambers’ ethics panels.

The legislation would allow the executive director of the ethics commission to issue guidance or advisory opinions to members of all three branches of government, Townsend said. Such inquiries would remain confidential.

“This is a matter of an individual hoping to avoid inappropriate conduct, and so it would make no sense to reveal someone hoping to just do the right thing,” she said. Also, the legislation disallows campaign contributions from entities that have sole-source contracts with the state worth $50,000 or more. Lawmakers would also be banned from becoming lobbyists for one year after they leave office and top-level members of the administration would be barred from profiting off their work in state government.

Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, said he was glad that lawmakers are being dragged “kicking and screaming” into creating an ethics commission. But he was also among a handful of House members who were concerned about a requirement that the spouses and domestic partners of elected officials would have to disclose sources of income.

“I’m going to have to explain to my spouse why she’s been dragged into my candidacy,” he said. “I just hate to draw my spouse into my candidacy, but I guess I’m going to have to.”

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, a longtime proponent of creating an ethics commission, commended the House for taking up the bill. She said she hopes lawmakers will strengthen it over time.

“While we had gotten a little closer in prior years … we hadn’t quite made it to where I thought we need to be. We aren’t quite there yet,” she said. “It’s a good first step.”

Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, also spoke strongly in favor of the bill.

“We need only to look around this country and see time and time again people in leadership positions, in the Legislature, in the administration, have violated ethics repeatedly — criminal violations as well as ethical violations,” he said.

The House and Senate will need to reconcile minor differences between their respective versions of the bill. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has said he would support the legislation.

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