Rules on Ethics Create Side Effects in Statehouses Lawmakers See Benefits and Perils of New Anticorruption Laws

Article excerpt

IN response to a series of scandals, state legislatures across the country have begun implementing measures requiring higher standards of conduct among their members, less contact with lobbyists, and more open ways of doing business.

But now that most of the new rules are in place, some lawmakers are wondering when is enough too much.

"We might have gone overboard with some ethics laws," says Walter Baker (R), a state senator in Kentucky. "The end result is that there has been an inhibition on the operation of state government."

Paul Hillegonds (R), the Co-Speaker of Michigan's House of Representatives, is also worried: "My attitude has changed. I now believe you can get too involved in reform. The more detailed you get, the more change there is, the more the public and the press will focus on the negative.... I'm wary of going too far."

Ethics reform is important to Mr. Baker and Mr. Hillegonds because they both come from states where scandals have rocked their legislatures. In Kentucky, the former House Speaker, two sitting legislators, and five former lawmakers were convicted in 1992 of racketeering and extortion. Last year in Michigan, the director of the House Fiscal Agency was indicted for diverting nearly $2 million of tax money to himself, his friends, and staff.

Nor were the scandals just there. In Arizona, seven state lawmakers two years ago were convicted of money laundering and bribery; in South Carolina, five legislators were convicted in 1990 on bribery charges and 14 others were indicted; and in Washington last year, the state's Public Disclosure Commission fined both Democratic and Republican party caucuses $100,000 for the illegal use of public facilities and legislative staffs.

"It is something that happens, it is very serious," Alan Rosenthal, a professor of political science at Rutger University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said of the scandals. "But it is an indictment of specific individuals, not an indictment of legislatures generally. In fact, I would argue that legislators and legislatures are more ethical than they used to be. …


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