Fiscal issues relating to Louisiana's anticipated $3.3 billion windfall will take center stage in the current legislative session, particularly in this election year. Gov. Kathleen Blanco has proposed a broad array of "investments" in education, roads and capital improvements, along with modest tax cuts. The governor and dozens of lawmakers will be retiring from public life this year, and they are looking for ways to leave a legacy in their final legislative session. Spending on infrastructure and granting tax relief are always popular ideas, but we think it's equally important to "invest" in Louisiana's national and international image by making some long-overdue upgrades to our state's code of ethics for government officials.
Toward that end, a broad coalition of several dozen organizations from across the state have launched an ambitious initiative to make Louisiana a national model for governmental ethics laws and enforcement over the next few years. The coalition calls itself LA Ethics 1 and includes the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL), several Chambers of Commerce, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and many others. "Louisiana has a long and colorful history of government corruption, which has left our state with a brand associated with a lack of integrity and transparency in government -- despite meaningful progress in recent years," LA Ethics 1 states in a position paper on its Web site (www.laethics1.com). "Business executives nationwide suggest that this brand image is a significant obstacle to Louisiana's economic development efforts."
LA Ethics 1 notes that reformers in and out of government have made piecemeal progress over the years, but those modest changes have not improved Louisiana's long-tarnished image as a corrupt backwater. Moreover, since Louisiana first adopted a far-reaching code of ethics in the 1960s, the laws that were intended to rein in public officials' misconduct have been weakened by more than 100 exceptions. "Louisiana's national image could take decades to improve if only incremental progress is achieved in this area," LA Ethics 1 states. That's why the kind of systemic overhaul envisioned by the coalition is so important at this time. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as the world looks at us with eyes that are both sympathetic and skeptical, Louisiana must do all that it can to improve its image. We therefore add our voice to the chorus of support for the bills proposed by LA Ethics 1 in the current legislative session. Those bills include the following proposals:
• Legislative Financial Disclosure (HB 730). Louisiana's Ethics Code lacks key provisions that are now standard throughout much of the country, particularly as relates to financial disclosure by legislators and legislative candidates. In 2003, The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) ranked Louisiana 44th in the country in this area of ethics law. The LA Ethics 1 proposal would require lawmakers and legislative candidates to disclose annually their income, assets and liabilities in broad ranges (less than $10,000, $10,000-24,999, more than $25,000, etc.). Such disclosure would promote accountability by revealing potential conflicts of interest, and reports would be available online.
• Improving Public Records Access (HB 442 and SB 85). Louisiana has strong public records laws. They include a mandatory response time, criminal and civil penalties for failure to provide information and attorney fees for those who successfully sue to enforce the law. However, citizens who are denied public records must take public officials to court, and the up-front costs can discourage people from asserting their rights. The proposed reforms would give citizens and journalists a fast, free administrative appeal as an alternative to the court system.
• Mandatory Ethics Training (HB 493 and SB 247). Many ethical violations are inadvertent. By requiring all elected and certain appointed officials to get training in ethics laws, such violations can be reduced.
• Independent, Full-Time Ethics Administrator (HB 532). Louisiana's top ethics enforcement official is a part-time lawyer with a private practice on the side. HB 532 would make the job a full-time position with adequate pay -- and allow no significant outside business activity. This change would focus attention on ethics administration and avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest in the enforcement of ethics laws.
• Lobbyist Disclosure and Regulation (HB 733 and SB 163). Louisiana currently requires lobbyists to register and to report most of their spending on public officials. However, current law has too many exceptions relating to gifts and trips. Those exceptions should be tightened by requiring greater lobbyist disclosure.
• Whistleblower Protection (HB 340 and SB 71). Whistleblower laws are designed to shield public employees who expose public wrongdoing from reprisals. Louisiana has a good whistleblower protection law, but it could be better. Specifically, it should protect public and private sector employees against threats -- and emphasize the full range of penalties for those who violate such protections. In addition, the state needs to improve public awareness of these protections.
The bills backed by LA Ethics 1 this year would make sweeping changes, but they represent just the start of a two- to three-year campaign to overhaul Louisiana's ethics laws and improve our state's image. If lawmakers pass all the bills cited above, Louisiana will place among the top five states in the country in governmental ethics laws -- and significantly improve its enforcement of those laws. We urge lawmakers to adopt all these measures, and we encourage our readers to make their voices heard on these important reforms.