Transparency is the buzzword of the day. Everybody favors it. The opposite is opacity and secrecy, which allow hidden motives to flourish and special interests to rule the day.
That’s why there is a movement in the Vermont House to enact ethics legislation relating to officeholders in Vermont. But questions about the House bill are significant, and House Speaker Shap Smith doesn’t intend to act on ethics legislation this year. Nor does he see the need for the creation of an ethics commission. Instead, he has appointed a special panel to look at existing rules about conflict of interest and disclosure of income.
Critics of Vermont’s lack of ethics rules have been so over the top that their criticism lacks credibility. Two good-government groups have given Vermont a zero and an F for its lack of ethics and conflict-of-interest rules. A report from the Campaign for Vermont, a think tank founded by a former Wall Street executive, asserted that corruption was rampant in Vermont. “Politicians and civil servants have exploited the lack of structure — and Vermont’s public trust — for their own personal gain in greater proportion than in any other state in the country,” the report said.
As a description of exploitation on Wall Street, that might be accurate. As a description of Vermont, it is laughable.
This is not to say that Vermonters do not have an interest in transparency — in knowing how legislators earn their living, what their private interests are and how these might affect their judgment on important issues. We have physicians acting on health care legislation. We have lawyers acting on bills affecting their clients. Smith, the House speaker, is a lawyer with the firm that represents Fletcher Allen Health Care. We need to know these connections.
In recent years, critics have tried to draw unsavory connections between Gov. Peter Shumlin, AllEarth Renewables and Green Mountain Power. Nothing definitive has been substantiated, but the connections among politicians and special interests are always germane.
At the same time Vermonters are familiar with the unique character of their citizen Legislature, which meets about four or five months a year and provides members about $12,000 a year. For much of the state’s history, the Legislature consisted mostly of farmers, who could be expected to make knowledgeable contributions to discussion of farm policy. Farmers still serve on the agriculture committees, and their decisions inevitably affect their livelihoods, at least indirectly.
Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the expertise of farmers, lawyers, health care providers, teachers, business people is essential to the conduct of business in the Legislature. Do we want business people to recuse themselves from discussion of economic development? Sen. Claire Ayer is a nurse who is married to a doctor, which has enhanced her knowledge of health care issues and her ability to lead as chairwoman of the Health and Welfare Committee.
Vermonters’ close acquaintance with their legislators allows them to assess whether an officeholder is serving his or her self-interest or the public interest. But that assessment is possible only if the public has information about the officeholders’ private interests. That’s why additional disclosure would be beneficial.
It is arguable that the self-interest of millionaires has its own way of shaping political points of view. The wealthy often have an interest mainly in protecting their wealth by avoiding new taxes. The Vermont Legislature is not overrun by millionaires, but it would be useful to know if a legislator averse to raising taxes on capital gains has his own capital gains uppermost in his mind.
Before Vermont creates an ethics commission to enforce standards of ethics, the state ought to establish clearer standards of ethics. As Shap Smith pointed out, New Jersey is a state with an ethics commission. Vermont is a state without one. What does that say about the usefulness of ethics commissions?
When officeholders stand to benefit personally from decisions they make, they ought to know that the people are aware and are watching. Voters need to follow the money, and politicians must not be allowed to hide it.
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