How Does Ethics Oversight Work?

By Birdsong, Nicholas | State Legislatures, March 2018 | Go to article overview

How Does Ethics Oversight Work?


Birdsong, Nicholas, State Legislatures


Ethical questions regularly come up for those who work in state legislatures. Undoubtedly, every senator, representative and staffer has faced a dilemma of some sort.

Is it OK to accept a small gift from a lobbyist? Do you have to report reimbursement received for transportation costs to attend a conference? Can a legislator represent a client before a state agency?

The toughest questions cannot easily be answered by looking up the relevant statute or regulation. That's where oversight entities can help. Each state has an authority that provides ethics advisory opinions when asked. Commissions and committees may draft regulations, investigate allegations, hold hearings or even offer trainings to help legislators and staff avoid accidentally running afoul of the rules.

Each state handles the enforcement of ethics rules a little differently. Some jurisdictions consolidate authority in a single commission, while others use several agencies that divide responsibility based on the issue. Campaign finance is the matter most often handled by a separate entity. States may have chamber-specific or legislature-specific oversight, a single ethics agency for the entire state government, or a layer-cake-like mix.

Forty-five states use ethics commissions, though their duties and powers vary widely. Commissions typically consist of a board of non-legislators. Some operate as agencies with quasi-judicial powers and can act independently of the legislature. Most cannot directly sanction legislators, but instead issue recommendations that must be approved by a chamber's vote.

Ethics committees operate similarly to commissions and exist in at least one chamber in 34 states. …

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