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Legislative sunshine and shielding


About a year ago, my wife was sworn in as a member of the planning and zoning commission of our small city (population 2,000). Before she could become a member, this being in the state of Oregon, she had to fill out a financial disclosure statement outlining any prospective conflicts of interest.

The point behind that, as state law says, is to “prohibit public officials from using office for financial gain, and require public disclosure of economic conflict of interest.” There’s reason for that; people who come before the commission have property and dollars at stake, and with the disclosures on record they can have some assurance that the people making the decisions aren’t doing it just to benefit themselves. The level of detail required in the forms comes up for discussion occasionally, but the overall point doesn’t.

Most states have requirements somewhat like this, and they tend to become more specific as you move upward in the reach of governmental authority. In the case of legislatures, 48 of the 50 states require financial disclosures. One exception is Michigan. The other is Idaho.

Idaho at least will have to wait a little longer. In November, an interim legislative committee voted to suggest such a law in Idaho, and the committee’s chair, seven-term Representative Tom Loertscher, said he would carry it. It wouldn’t be one of the most rigorous disclosure laws in the country (it’s much like Utah’s) but it would set a system in place giving Idahoans a little more confidence in why all of their legislators do what they do.

Today, Loertscher, who also chairs the House State Affairs Committee (which handles such matters as rules for public officials) brought in the measure for introduction. He voted for it, as did the committee’s two Democrats. All the other members, all Republicans, voted against. (One of those Republicans, temporarily chairing the committee, did not vote but said he would have been in favor of introducing.) So it stayed un-introduced.

The arguments against? Really, much the same as veterans around the Idaho Legislature have heard for decades. Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian: “I think this thing is a huge damper to those who want to challenge us.” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens: “I just don’t agree that the Idaho public thinks that this body is full of dishonest individuals. I just don’t buy that.” Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett: “I feel like we’re on the edge of a George Orwell book with thought police here, asking people to disclose what they think, down the road, may be a conflict of interest.”

If you’re sitting almost anywhere but in a legislator’s chair, none of this is likely to instill a lot of confidence. Quite the contrary.

Loertscher warned the committee members, “Financial disclosure of elected officials is in your future, because this will happen at some point.” He is surely right.

But not today. And not, perhaps, until a few legislators pay a political price for their shielding.

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