Gov. Kathleen Blanco has been accused of submitting a legislative package that"s not very ambitious. But, in asking lawmakers to impose significantly tighter ethical and fund-raising restrictions on themselves and other state officials, she is pushing one of the most ambitious agendas in memory.
And if the recent special session is any indication of her ability to convince lawmakers to make difficult decisions, don"t sell her or her package short.
Many were waiting for Blanco to unveil a new health-care program for Louisiana. The state of the state"s health and hospital system was a hot topic during and after last fall"s statewide elections, and Blanco certainly raised expectations by calling a health-care summit shortly after taking office in January. But that topic will have to wait until the far-flung constituencies of public health care reach a consensus on what Louisiana"s hospital system should look like. That will take time.
In the meantime, Blanco has set her sights on imposing greater ethical and financial restrictions on many -- but possibly not all -- Louisiana politicians. The bills she outlined in her opening-day address to lawmakers would:
• Require lawmakers and all statewide elected officials to disclose the sources of their incomes. Currently the governor must file an annual revenue disclosure statement in ranges -- for example, between $10,000 and $19,999 -- and by sources, such as real estate holdings and investments. The bill was still being drafted last week, and many lawmakers were noncommittal about it.
• Bar the governor and lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions or loans during a regular legislative session and for 30 days afterward.
• Require lobbyists to disclose how much money they spend lobbying the governor, the governor"s staff, and others in the executive branch of government. Lobbyists currently must report how much they spend trying to influence legislators when the amounts exceed $50 per lawmaker per event, and $250 annually. Blanco"s measure would close a gaping loophole in the current law and apply a consistent standard for lobbyist disclosure.
• Bar individuals from making secret campaign contributions by giving money in someone else"s name.
In most states, these kinds of proposals would sail through -- and they probably already are on the books as laws. But Louisiana is slow to rid itself of its image as a corrupt state where whom you know is more important than what you know. It"s not that citizens love being reviled as an example of backwardness and corruption; rather, it"s because for so many of our public officials, corruption is a viable career option.
In presenting her ideas to lawmakers last Monday, Blanco wisely framed the debate in economic development terms, not ethical ones.
"One of the most discouraging things I hear from out-of-state CEOs is their negative perception of Louisiana," Blanco said. "Many of these CEOs have avoided our state for years. They believe that to do business in Louisiana requires them to deal under the table. We must abolish this notion that in order to set up business they will be held up."
Blanco is absolutely correct about that. But, as much as I want to cheer her for sending a strong ethical (and economic development) message, I fear her bill won"t go far enough. Yes, it"s important for us to put lawmakers and statewide elected officials in financial fishbowls, but why stop with them? Truth be told, most of the corruption in Louisiana probably occurs at the local level -- among city and parish council members, mayors, and school board members. Why not make them disclose all their business dealings as well? And while we"re at it, why not make candidates for office file the disclosures, too, just to level the playing field? This also would give voters a more complete picture of the folks they"re electing -- before Election Day.
If Blanco really wants to send a message to corporate America that Louisiana is cleaning up its image -- and cleaning house -- then she ought to considering cleaning the entire house, not just a few of the rooms. Who knows? Maybe that kind of sweeping reform might make this bitter pill easier for legislators to swallow.