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Reforming Ethics Reform

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Louisiana lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal wasted no time patting themselves on the back in February after enacting some of the toughest ethical laws in the country. In those heady early days of the Jindal Administration, supporters of the new governor basked in the afterglow of what appeared to be a stunning legislative triumph. To be sure, Louisiana made some important strides on the ethics front, but many warned that more work lay ahead. Indeed, while some of the "reforms" didn't go far enough, it's now apparent that some actually went too far.

The case of state Museum Board member Rosemary Ewing, wife of former Senate President Randy Ewing, illustrates a problem that new financial disclosure requirements place on persons who serve on many of the 500 or so state boards and commissions. The state's new "ethics reform" laws extend financial disclosure requirements to thousands of members of relatively obscure state boards and commissions — and to their spouses. Ewing is one of many volunteer board members who may resign in the months ahead rather than disclose all of her (and her husband's) sources and ranges of income, assets, debts and major personal expenditures each year. Her frustration, and that of many others, is understandable.

"It's time to take a second look at financial disclosure for boards and commissions," notes Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL). We agree.

When the special session on ethics began in February, the Jindal Administration backed a proposal to impose modest disclosure requirements on members of low-profile state boards and commissions. As initially proposed, the new legislation would require such board and commission members to disclose income derived from state or local government and from any services provided to gaming interests. This was the same level of disclosure then required of state lawmakers.

When lawmakers succumbed to public pressure to increase their own levels of disclosure, they imposed the same requirement on members of boards and commissions that oversee $1 million or more in state funds. Such boards and commissions typically have volunteer members who meet only a few times a year and who genuinely lend their considerable expertise to public service for no reward. For many of them, strict financial disclosure is an unwarranted and unnecessary invasion of their privacy. State law already prohibits them from doing business with the agencies they oversee and requires them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Those are reasonable requirements.

CABL notes that many board and commission members, faced with the higher standards of financial disclosure, began asking themselves "if it was really worth it" to serve on their respective boards and commissions if they had to disclose so much about their personal finances. "Many sent word that they would resign their positions," CABL added in a recent newsletter, "and those that have to recruit people to these boards suddenly found that prospective members just weren't interested."

Cynics note that this is exactly what opponents of ethics reform wanted all along — to give the public too much of a good thing so that it could later be undone. Many now fear there will be a retrenchment from the gains posted in the February session. That's possible, but it's also possible to roll back some of the excessive disclosure requirements without gutting the intent of the original legislation. Again, the original legislation did not extend this level of disclosure to low-profile boards and commissions.

CABL suggests requiring members of low-profile boards and commissions to disclose their sources of significant income — without having to disclose specific amounts or ranges of income — as a "meaningful middle ground." The group also recommends mandatory ethics training for all board and commission members as an additional step to ensure compliance with the law and the avoidance of future conflicts of interest. We think this is a reasonable compromise that will preserve both the spirit and the letter of the new disclosure law — and keep the disclosure emphasis where it belongs: on elected officials.

To be sure, members of high-profile boards and commissions, such as the Mineral Board, the various boards of education and other statewide policymaking and regulatory boards, should face higher disclosure requirements. This may necessitate a board-by-board examination, but many of the lower-profile commissions should be easily shifted to a less intrusive disclosure level.

As noted above, members of boards and commissions already are barred from doing business with their own agencies, and they must disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Having them also reveal their sources of significant income strikes a good balance between meaningful disclosure and the privacy rights of citizens who volunteer to serve the state. "The last thing we need to do is shrink the pool of good people who would be willing to offer themselves to serve on various boards and commissions," CABL notes. Unless we reform some of the recent reforms, that's a real danger.

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