Outlook Good For Bill That Will Create An Ethics Commission In Vermont

May 8, 2017

When lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Wednesday, one of the first items up for debate is a bill that creates an ethics commission in Vermont.

Vermont is one of a handful of states without an ethics commission, and backers say this bill is a small step forward.

The bill creates a five-member commission that will review allegations of unethical behavior. If they find the case has merit, it will be sent to the attorney general's office for further review.

Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina is the lead sponsor of the bill. Pollina says public confidence in state government is very low and he thinks the creation of an ethics commission will help deal with this situation.

"I think this is a good way to begin to build trust and rebuild trust in the political process," said Pollina. 

The Campaign for Vermont is a strong supporter of an ethics commission. Executive Director Ben Kingsley says the bill has limitations but he also thinks it's a solid beginning.

"It doesn't give them any investigatory subpoena power or even the ability to sanction, but it does get an independent structure in place that can accept complaints from the general public, which I think it is a critical first step," said Kingsley.

The bill also calls for all statewide candidates to release their tax returns. Kingsley supports this requirement.

"I think this is a good way to begin to build trust and rebuild trust in the political process." — Washington Sen. Anthony Pollina

"Part of the intent of doing that is to get rid of this political gamesmanship that happens between candidates running for statewide office who are like, 'I released my tax return, when are you going to release yours?'" said Kingsley.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group also strongly supports the creation of an ethics commission in Vermont.

Executive Director Paul Burns says a key provision of the bill prohibits lawmakers and members of the executive branch from lobbying for a period of at least a year after they leave office.

"People in the public don't want to believe that somebody is essentially negotiating a deal with the private sector while they are in state office,” said Burns. “And maybe looking kindly on their future employer in ways that don’t recognize the best interests of the state."

The bill also requires lawmakers to disclose all sources of income greater than $5,000, but the exact amounts don't have to be listed.

"It doesn't give them any investigatory subpoena power or even the ability to sanction, but it does get an independent structure in place that can accept complaints from the general public." — Campaign For Vermont Executive Director Ben Kingsley

Some legislators have complained that these requirements will discourage people from running for office, but Burns doesn't think it will be a problem.

"At some level you have to recognize that the people have a right to this kind of information, and if it discourages a very small number of people from running for office because they can't stand the idea to disclose their financial interests, I think we can live with that,” said Burns. “I think there are other Vermonters who will step up and recognize the importance of this kind of disclosure."

Sen. Pollina says he thinks the most important part of the bill has nothing to do with financial disclosure, but rather the creation of a place where government officials can seek guidance about potential conflicts of interest.

“I don't think that we're going to find there's a lot of people out there breaking laws and doing unethical things, but the problem is right now if you have a question you have nowhere to get an answer to that question," he said.

Supporters are optimistic that the bill will pass both the House and Senate on Wednesday.