Ethics questions involving House Education Chairman Bob Behning rose and fell last week in just a matter of days, but the underlying issues shouldn’t go away so quickly.
Behning, R-Indianapolis, had proposed to begin lobbying in another state for an education testing company that does business in Indiana and the House Ethics Committee was expected to take up the issue next week.
But almost as soon as Behning proposed the idea, House Speaker Brian Bosma discouraged it. After all, if that arrangement doesn’t scream conflict of interest, then what does?
So Behning backed off and told the Ethics Committee he would no longer be pursing a contract with the testing company. He then told The Indianapolis Star – which broke the story – that he’s no longer looking to lobby in other states.
“That has become very clear to me that in today’s world that is just something I should not look at,” Behning told The Star’s Tom LoBianco when asked if he would seek any other lobbying clients.
What’s worrisome is that it wasn’t already clear or that it might ever have been OK.
Granted, Indiana has a part-time legislature, meaning the majority of lawmakers have full-time or part-time jobs outside their positions as elected officials. The House and Senate have lawyers, teachers, real estate agents and others who are in some way regulated or affected by state government.
And often, those lawmakers serve on the very committees that set the rules for their professions. To a large degree, that is the nature of a part-time legislature and that’s why the chambers set up rules that require lawmakers to abstain from votes that affect their finances or their jobs directly.
Already, the House is working on new ethics rules that will require more transparency and impose new restrictions on executive branch employees. The proposal follows Statehouse scandals involving a lawmaker accused of privately lobbying for legislation in which he had a financial interest and a former state superintendent who allegedly used his office for political gain.
But no set of rules or guidelines can foresee every potential conflict of interest. No law can anticipate all the creative ways that public officials can try to use their office for personal gain. Instead, the public must count on the General Assembly and individual lawmakers to police themselves. That starts with common sense, something that doesn’t appear to have been present in the Behning case.
The House and Senate education committees should be the places where school policy gets hashed out. It’s where the testimony is taken and the details are determined. It’s not a place where members should be influenced by money they’re making from companies affected by the bills. And even if Behning said he’d only be lobbying out of state, he still would have been taking money from companies affected by what his committee does – or chooses not to do.
That’s not right – in the education committee or anyplace in the General Assembly or state government.
It’s not clear what Bosma or the House Ethics Committee would have done had Behning not withdrawn his lobbying proposal. But it seems obvious what they should have done: Forced Behning to choose between representing his constituents or representing a company that could have been affected by his actions.
Hopefully in the future, lawmakers will make the right choice.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.