Waiting for reform

Waiting for reform

- in Fitzsimon File

The General Assembly drags on and is now almost certain to continue well into August. Everyday there are reports that House and Senate budget negotiators are making progress, but there is still final agreement on taxes and a Medicaid package.

One of the sticking points continues to be a local option real estate transfer tax. The Senate leadership continues to bow to the wishes of the Realtors who continue to work to deny people to vote on how to pay for schools in their own counties.

And there is still plenty to do before lawmakers leave town this summer, including filling in the holes left in last year’s lobbying and ethics reform legislation. House and Senate leaders haven’t said much about reform this year.

Most of the legislation has come from Republicans, Rep. John Blust in particular, whose proposals include a ban on fundraising by lobbyists, opening up hearings of the State Ethics Commission, and limiting the number terms the House Speaker and President Pro Tem of the Senate can serve.

All of those ideas deserve consideration. The lobbyists fundraising ban was actually endorsed by a House Select Committee last year and House Speaker Joe Hackney spoke favorably of term limits on leadership posts before this session began. Much of the reform community supports both of those proposals as well as opening up the ethics committee process.

Blust’s reforms and several other important proposals to try to restore public confidence in the legislative process seem mired in a thicket that’s a combination of partisan politics and what one legislator called ethics fatigue, lawmakers who privately complain about all the attention to ethics and lobbying reform.

Cash in bathrooms and $500,000 loans from lobbyists demand that more be done, whether some legislators want to talk about it or not. The public has corruption fatigue, tired of watching elected officials walk into courthouses.

 The House leadership isn’t ignoring the issue completely, reportedly working behind the scenes on a package of ethics legislation that should be unveiled fairly soon.

Let’s hope that package includes most of Blust’s ideas and a few more, most notably a proposal by Rep. William Current to end the legal money laundering that allows legislative leaders in both parties to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual legislators’ campaigns by sending it first to their state political party.

Current wants to limit party contributions to individual campaigns like 27 states already do, but it seems unlikely to happen this year. Current made his case about the corrupting influence of the money shuffling to a House Committee Wednesday afternoon, but an agreement had already been reached that the proposal would be turned into a study of the issue.

It’s not clear what there is to study. Current pointed out that some party money goes to candidates who are unopposed and that in the 2006 election cycle political parties raised $5.5 million and gave it to less than 20 percent of the candidates for the General Assembly.

Five Democratic candidates received 90 percent of the Democratic Party contributions and five Republicans were given 70 percent of their party’s money.  Current said ending the money laundering ought to be at the top of any reform agenda and he’s right.  

Blust is right about much of his agenda too, no matter how frustrating that is to much of the House Democratic Caucus. Late Tuesday afternoon, Blust’s bills were moved to a House Judiciary Committee and its Chair Rep Deborah Ross says they may be part of the final ethics legislation.

There’s some obvious irony in holding private meetings about ethics and lobbying reforms. It’s time that they end and the issues are debated in public. House and Senate leaders need to put aside party labels and lawmakers discomfort and pass the next round of reforms. A skeptical public is waiting.