By Chris Arnold
The full House is set to vote on new rules that are meant to reduce conflicts of interest and require lawmakers to be more transparent about their finances.
The House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee unanimously passed the proposal on last week, sending it to the House for ratification.
The changes follow an incident last year involving former Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero. The House Ethics Committee investigated Turner for advocating privately for a bill that helped him and his family financially. The group decided Turner didn’t break any rules – but that the rules needed to change.
The Rules Committee action also comes a week after House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, withdrew a request to lobby in another state for a testing company that does business in Indiana. That had been expected to be the first test of the new ethics rules but Behning said he will not pursue additional lobbying contracts. And since then, state Rep. Eric Koch – who has investments in oil and gas companies – backed off his bill dealing with that industry.
The proposed rules include a preamble that calls for high moral and ethical standards to avoid conflicts of interests between personal interests and public duties.
The new rules require that House members reveal more about their personal financial interests as well as those of their close relatives. The rules also ban a lawmaker with a “personal or pecuniary interest” in a legislative matter from authoring, sponsoring and voting on legislation that deals with those issues. The rules discourage any advocacy of those issues as ell.
Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, said the proposed rules are a big improvement over those that have been in place for some time. But she they could be better.
Vaughn said the rules set a particularly high standard for what is considered a direct personal or pecuniary interest. The proposed rules say that means the “matter could reasonably be expected to have a unique, direct, and substantial effect” on the lawmaker’s non-legislative income, the income of a close relative or a company in which the lawmaker or family member has an interest.
The problem, Vaughn said, is the use of the word “and” instead of “or” in that definition. She said lawmakers should be required to avoid authoring or voting on bills that have a unique or direct or substantial effect on their or a family member’s income. All three qualifiers should not have to apply, she said.
Vaughn said the existing language weakens the rules.
She also told the Rules Committee last week that the language pertaining to advocacy is “too suggestive.” She said the language should be more clear.
“We believe much stronger language would be striking the ‘should avoid’ and simply say ‘shall not engage’,” Vaughn said.
The rules would not apply to budget or revenue bills. In those those circumstances, members would be required to publicly disclose their interests and involvements.
The ethics guidelines also detail the process by which members that are accused of having a conflict of interest, violation, or a complaint against them are further investigated.
Chris Arnold is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.