States Forge Ahead on Ethics Wyoming Is the Latest State to Respond to Washington Scandals with a New Ethics Code

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On the wind-swept, sagebrush plains of Wyoming, for more than a century a cattleman's handshake was as good as a contract, and a person's word was as good as law.

But even in America's least-populous state, the drumbeat of Washington scandals is prompting citizens to put in writing a code of ethics for its politicians.

A Wyoming citizens group last week launched a statewide campaign to put an ethics law on the November 1998 ballot. The move here is part of a broader trend among voters who aren't waiting for Capitol Hill to reform how politics is conducted in their state. In Massachusetts, for example, legislators recently adopted a "no-coffee rule" which prohibits them from accepting even a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. This past weekend, 3,000 Bay State volunteers fanned out to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to limit campaign spending for state offices. A number of states - including California, Arkansas, Maine and Colorado - approved campaign-finance reforms by ballot initiative last year. And "there's likely to be a lot more of this in the pipes," says Robert Stern, spokesman for the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws in Los Angeles. "Any time you have a federal scandal, you see states changing laws." "What's going on in Washington right now with campaign finance and concerning the ethics of our leaders has a big impact," says Dave Ferrari, Wyoming state auditor. "{Citizens} don't want that in their state government," he says. Curbing lobbyists' influence remains the primary objective of many states' ethics laws. But for a growing number of states, campaign-finance reform is an increasingly important issue. The Massachusetts ballot initiative would prohibit national parties from transferring funds to state parties. It would also speed up disclosure by requiring campaign funding data to be available on computer databases as well as on paper. In recent years, most states have enacted laws addressing the ethical behavior of public officials - some by referendum, most through legislative action - and experts believe public pressure for such laws continues to rise. Indeed, Wyoming and Vermont are the only states without some kind of ethics laws on the books. "The public is very volatile right now. The confidence level in politicians is generally low," says Alan Rosenthal, professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in Princeton, N.J. "When there's a scandal, state legislatures will react by passing ethics legislation - they're passing these laws to pacify the public ... All the states are moving in this same direction now." In Kentucky, the General Assembly established an ethics code in 1993 after several House members were indicted on federal charges of bribery following an FBI sting. …


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