MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation that will tweak ethics laws for some government officials and create a statewide ethics commission to review complaints.
The measure, S.8, was passed on a voice vote without opposition. It will be up for final approval in the Senate Wednesday.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, told her colleagues that trust in government has been eroding for years. “This mistrust runs from the federal government down to local government,” she said.
White cited polling commissioned by Vermont Public Radio last fall that highlighted her point. She said 78 percent of Vermonters had “little trust” in municipal government. The number was even worse for state government, with 89 percent of Vermonters saying they little trust.
“This is a problem,” White said. “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.’”
The legislation creates a five-member ethics commission that would be run by a part-time director for a cost of about $100,000 a year. Members of the commission will be appointed by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, the Vermont Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, the Vermont Society of Certified Public Accounts and the Vermont Human Resources Association.
Under the legislation, the commission could refer complaints on for further review to the attorney general, which has investigative powers. The commission will not be granted investigative powers in its current format.
White defended the limited power granted to the commission, saying it could be enhanced if the need arises. Going so now, however, “would have cost a lot of money,” she said.
“And second, we do not know what the need is,” White said. “As the year goes on, we will know if we need a more robust commission or if this in fact meets our needs.”
“Our committee recommendation is to start, find out what the needs are, have some education and training … and then we will know if further steps are needed,” she added.
Although the legislation was advanced without opposition, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, said the legislation “hardly scratches the surface” of what the state needs from ethics reform.
“A legislator can’t become a lobbyist, but a lobbyist can become a legislator,” he said. “A legislator can write policy for years for an industry and then be hired by that industry. None of that is addressed in this bill,” he said.
Under the proposal, statewide officeholders and those running for statewide office would be required to disclose some financial information. It also will prevent lawmakers and high-ranking administration officials from lobbying for a one year period after leaving their government positions.
White said the state’s lack of an ethics commission “provides fodder” for those who have little trust in government. But creating an ethics commission “in no way means that we have more problems with ethical conduct than any others,” she said.