MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday signed S.8, a long-awaited ethics bill that creates an ethics commission and policies to deal with corruption and conflicts of interest in state government.
Rep. Maida Townsend, D-South Burlington, has worked for years on the effort as chair of the House Government Operations Committee. She told True North the final product is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.
“It truly is a step forward, although there are many entities who wanted to see full investigatory power for the commission,” she said. “But, you know, the language of this bill, in terms of the ethics commission, stays intact until the year 2020.”
Townsend said additional changes would likely have to occur at that point, when the funding expires.
Under the new legislation, lawmakers and state employees must wait one year after leaving their positions to take a new position as a lobbyist. S.8 also prohibits the ‘pay-to-play’ patterns of contracting with the state.
“It clearly prohibits what are known as no-bid contracts, those kinds of relationships between candidates and people serving in office (and those seeking business favors),” Townsend said.
State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, said the commission may be adequate as defined in the statute.
“I believe this is the beginning, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that it’s going to become bigger, because we don’t know what the extent of the problem is,” she said.
“For us to set up a fully-funded ethics commission with full investigative and subpoena powers and enforcement powers before we even know what the magnitude of the problem is, seems to me foolhardy.”
Vermont has received low marks when it comes to ethics assessments. In 2015, the state received an F from the Center for Public Integrity for ethics enforcement, and a D-minus overall.
White disputes such low scores, claiming grades are sometimes based on positions that don’t even exist. She gave an example of a question asked by the Center for Public Integrity.
“It asks, ‘Do you have a policy on nepotism when hiring your own legislative staff?’ Well, no, we don’t have a policy, because we don’t have legislative staff. So why would we have a policy? I’ve talked to them and tried to get them to change some of their questions, but they won’t do it,” she said.
With the new process, the executive director of the commission reviews each reported violation and funnels it to the appropriate board. For instance, if it’s an attorney who has been reported, it goes to the Professional Conduct Board; if it’s a judicial officer, it goes to the Judicial Review Board.
Likewise, lawmakers are referred to the House or Senate ethics panel, state employees are referred to Human Resources, and campaign finance issues are sent to the attorney general’s office.
Ben Kinsley, executive director of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity, a nonpartisan group that promotes ethics reform, hailed the law as long overdue.
“It’s a bill that we’ve been working on for several years now and we are definitely very excited to see the Legislature and the governor moving forward on this,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s everything that we would have wanted but it’s a big step in the right direction.”
Kinsley anticipates additional changes when the law is implemented in the fall. For one thing, he said he wants to see stronger enforcement power for the commission and less power for elected officials.
“I think when some of that happens, it becomes political,” he said.
Kinsley said it’s important to not assume that citizen legislatures like Vermont’s have higher transparency.
“It’s easy to mistake the level of accessibility with transparency; the two are not the same thing,” he said. “Also, there are 13 other states that have citizen legislatures and all of them have ethics commissions.”
In the end, Kinsley said he’s happy the process finally got started in Vermont.
“If you can’t have confidence in government, then really anything else you do is not going to live up to its full potential,” he said. “We felt like that was a really important first step to get that in place and rebuild confidence in state government, and then move forward from there.”