It is not often we get a pleasant surprise before the opening session of the state Legislature. But in a recent press release, the chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party called for bi-partisan support of ethics legislation designed to bring greater transparency to state government and clean up Louisiana's corrupt image. 'The negative perception of our state has long stifled economic development, hampering our state's ability to attract business and create jobs,' said Jim Bernhard, chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party and CEO of The Shaw Group in Baton Rouge. Bernhard said Democrats would carry the flag for ethical reform in the legislative session that began April 25.
Bernhard no doubt wants to avoid seeing Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco embarrassed again by a majority-Democrat Legislature. In her first legislative session last year, Blanco proposed expanding personal financial disclosure requirements for legislators and legislative candidates, bringing Louisiana into line with most other states. Sadly, she could not find a single lawmaker willing to sponsor her bill. This time, Blanco and state Democrats are urging legislative passage of House Bill 694, authored by state Rep. Yvonne Dorsey, D-Baton Rouge. The bill would require legislators and candidates for the Legislature to disclose the same kind of personal financial information -- income, debts, investments and certain financial transactions -- that the governor is required to report.
Blanco says HB694 would strengthen her hand as she markets Louisiana to out-of-state CEOs. 'Louisiana has a big, big chasm to leap; our reputation for corruption haunts us,' Blanco says. She's right. Louisiana is one of only seven states that do not require basic information on legislators' incomes, assets and potential conflicts of interest, according to a recent survey by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. The center recently gave Louisiana an 'F' for disclosure of legislative ties to special interests, ranking our state 42nd nationwide. If HB694 passes, the state's grade would improve, says Leah Rush, the center's director of state projects. 'Since almost every other state has way more information about their legislators, Louisiana (lawmakers) shouldn't have a problem providing people with more information,' Rush says. 'Louisiana would just be kind of catching up.'
We strongly support Bernhard and Blanco in their bid to pass HB694. In fact, we'd like to see other statewide elected officials -- all but one of whom are Democrats -- who are not covered by HB694 (as introduced) request that their offices be included in the bill. They are Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr., Treasurer John Kennedy, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, and Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Wooley. We also strongly support Republicans in their efforts to pass Senate Bill 82. Authored by Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, SB82 repeals a state ethics law that encourages politicians to expect free tickets for choice seats from lobbyists and vendors for Saints and LSU football games and other popular events. Rep. Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie and chair of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees ethics legislation, recently griped that the law imposing a $100 ceiling on free tickets for politicos 'basically prohibits you from sitting anywhere you can see the game.'
Note to Lancaster: You can still buy a ticket.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Democrats can back up their rhetoric on ethics by disciplining violators of state campaign finance laws inside their own party. As of April 27, candidates and incumbent officeholders from all parties owed the state a total of $865,450 in fines for late filings of campaign finance disclosure reports, according to Louisiana Ethics Commission records. Among them are three New Orleanians serving on the Democratic State Central Committee, the policy-making body of the state Democratic Party. Records also show 30 elected officials are being pursued for thousands of dollars in late fees for violating campaign finance laws. Leading the pack is Jimmy Fahrenholtz, a Democrat and Orleans Parish School Board member who owes $9,685 in fines. In fact, of the top 10 officials who have either exhausted appeals or who owe the state more than $1,000, nine are Democrats. Joining Fahrenholtz on the list is a fellow New Orleanian and Democrat, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, at $2,580. Both men are lawyers who aspire to the New Orleans City Council.
Will the Louisiana Democratic Party discipline members who do not pay up? 'The party is not an enforcement body,' says Andrew Koneschusky, the party's communications director. 'We believe everyone should act within the confines of the law. We don't have the power to compel them to do so, but we are going to stand for ethics.' We disagree. Both parties have the right to deny endorsements and campaign funds to candidates with ethics violations and past-due fines. We'd like to see Democratic and GOP leaders show some old-fashioned "party discipline" and get those fines paid -- as they join forces in support of ethics reform. Who knows, maybe they'll surprise us again.