Vermont ranks among the bottom handful of states when it comes to government integrity laws, but this year lawmakers will once again attempt to enact real ethics reform.
Last year, an ethics reform bill passed the Vermont Senate at the end of the legislative session, but ran out out of time in the House. This year lawmakers will try again with a nearly identical bill, S.8, and supporters hope it will go the distance.
Ben Kinsley, executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Campaign for Vermont, said his organization has been working hard to get ethics reform for about four years.
“It was getting close to the end of the session and I think they had a lot of other things on their plate,” Kinsley said regarding last year’s effort.
This year’s bill includes five objectives:
- Prohibit legislators and executives from certain types of employment after leaving office.
- Require disclosures of legislative and state office candidates.
- Prohibit certain contractor campaign contributions.
- Require executive officers to file a biennial disclosure form.
- Create a State Ethics Commission with the authority to review and track complaints regarding unethical conduct in government.
Kinsley said that state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, plans to get the bill to the Senate floor within the next month. Secretary of State Jim Condos, a long time proponent of ethics reform, testified before the committee on Tuesday. Additional testimony is scheduled this week.
“The time has come for Vermont to enact a clear law regarding ethics, conflicts of interest and financial disclosure for our elected officials,” Condos said in June 2015.
A handful of other groups have been behind this effort, including the ACLU, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Ethan Allen Institute, the League of Women Voters and the Public Assets Institute.
Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a free-market think tank, said he believes S.8 is a step in the right direction, but that it’s not without flaws. Namely, Roper notes that institutions such as the ACLU and the League of Women Voters, which appoint commission members, also employ lobbyists.
“What’s to stop them from appointing groups that are just going to do the bidding of the special interests?” Roper said.
Roper said the disclosure aspects of the bill are important, adding that they may affect top politicians like House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, who is also director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood in Vermont.
Kinsley said several disputes have arisen around the idea of an ethics commission.
“One is, why do we need this?” he said. “I think the better argument is, why don’t we need this?”
Another dispute is over financial disclosures. Some lawmakers, according to Kinsley, are concerned that disclosures could discourage people from running for office. He responds that 47 states have developed the requirements and that Vermont should be able to find ways to mitigate this concern.
Yet another argument is the cost associated with running such a commission. Kinsley noted that the bill may require one full-time staffer working within the existing system.
Despite their past failures, Kinsley said lawmakers are prioritizing the ethics reform this time around.
“Their top legislative priority is getting this through, and that’s pretty much our top legislative priority as well,” he said. “And this is an issue that has overwhelming support in the Senate.”