Is a toothless ethics bill better than nothing?

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Vermonters should soon have something slightly better than a brick wall to send their complains about government ethics.

VTDigger reports that the Legislature, quite reluctantly, has passed a bill creating a State Ethics Commission, along with some other rules for lawmakers to follow.

In addition to the commission, the bill requires those running for a seat in the Legislature to disclose their sources of income if they're over $5,000. They don't have to say how much they're getting, but they also have to disclose their spouse's' income. Those running for statewide office have to disclose their federal tax returns.

And if they don't, well...well...um.

Nothing happens. The law has no teeth. Laws without penalties for breaking them are more commonly called "suggestions." Or "Guidelines" if you want to want to sound fancy.

Secretary of State Jim Condos supported the bill in its early stages, but according to Digger he now fears it's largely symbolic. Condos and others had wanted the commission to be staffed with a full-time director backed by a team of investigators. If Governor Phil Scott signs the bill, the ethics commission will have one part-time director and that's it.

Those speaking in favor of the bill, their statements boil down to "it's something."

According to the Digger piece, the only reason an ethics commission was even discussed is because the media essentially shamed the Legislature into creating one.

Most states have an ethics commission, including, and especially, the corrupt ones, as Sen. Jeanette White pointed out to Digger. "What I'm saying is I don't know that a state code of ethics or an ethics commission necessarily means you won't have less corruption," she said.

The thrust of the Digger article was that the Legislature hates making laws that impact lawmakers directly. Campaign finance reform was also a big stone for them to pass.

The cynics among us would say this reluctance is to be expected. The foxes appointed to watch over the henhouse aren't going to move too quickly on banning chicken dinners. People with power tend not to use that power to hamper themselves. Those people aren't wrong, but it's worth it to note that the folks pointing this out are often lawmakers themselves.

Much of the debate regarding income disclosure centered around requirements placed upon spouses. Vermont maintains a "citizen Legislature," meaning that most people we send to Montpelier still need to work day jobs, just like us regular folks. The fear expressed by some over these financial disclosure requirements was that they'd make regular people balk at running for office, presumably because they value their privacy, not because they're in someone's pocket...or somehow beholden to hostile, foreign governments.

Knowing a few legislators, we doubt they're in league with Russians or New Yorkers. Much of our lawmakers' reluctance likely does stem from a genuine sense that we don't need an ethics commission.

Maybe we don't. Maybe we don't need locks on our doors, either. At least until we do.


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