How Do This State's Lawmakers Earn Their Money? None of Your Damn Business
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because more transparency could start restoring faith in government.
By Nick Fouriezos
Folks in Idaho Falls are of the “live and let live” sort, says Dan Knudsen, a longtime area math teacher. That mentality applies to politics as well. Knudsen doesn’t seem too bothered, for instance, that the Gem State is one of only a few where lawmakers don’t have to report the sources of their revenue. He wonders aloud about Frank VanderSloot, the local founder of Melaleuca, an online wellness company that brings hundreds of jobs to the rural east Idaho region. “He’s a billionaire,” Knudsen says, and it wouldn’t surprise him if VanderSloot does business with lawmakers. “But he’s a good guy. He puts on the Fourth of July fireworks every year. The biggest in the West, they say.”
That folksy trust extends to the capital, Boise. “There’s not a huge problem in Idaho — I don’t think there is,” Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke reportedly told lawmakers considering ethics reform two years ago. “I know most of you well, I know your hearts.” While Bedke may know them, the public has no way to, because financial reporting isn’t required.
Idaho is one of just three — wait, make that two — states with no financial disclosure requirements for state legislators.
Only state lawmakers in Idaho and Michigan don’t have to report how they earn their keep, after Vermont passed a law in mid-June that requires public reports for incomes of more than $5,000. Such disclosures are seen as important checks against legislators, fans of transparent government say. Idaho has no ethics commission to oversee potential corruption, nor a cooling-off period that keeps public officials from becoming lobbyists soon after leaving office. The result is a system with little oversight, which earned a D– rating from the Center for Public Integrity in its 2015 investigative report.
Idaho is dragging its feet at a time when public faith in government is at an all-time low.
To be clear, there’s “no deep history of corruption” in Idaho, writes Betsy Russell, president of Idahoans for Openness in Government, in an analysis provided to OZY, although an Obama-era Department of Justice probe into private prison contracts — and the way they were awarded to big donors of the governor — tested the state’s squeaky-clean image. Idahoans have tried to address transparency issues recently, filing a public petition last year that fell just short of the signatures it needed to force a referendum vote on disclosure laws. And state lawmakers have discussed creating a study group to examine how the humble Legislature, which meets only three months a year, can practice good government.
Yet study groups can go nowhere fast, as Idaho politicos found when a “faith healing” committee conducted a series of open town halls, then failed to give so much as a recommendation. Nationally, some states are actually pushing ahead on ethics reform; and this year, lawmakers in 26 states proposed a law compelling presidential candidates to release their federal tax returns, after Donald Trump notably refused to during the 2016 presidential election.
Idaho is dragging its feet at a time when public faith in government is at an all-time low. “It’s just another example of how broke our system is,” says Pablo Barra, who moved to Idaho from California five years ago. But revealing records can sometimes be beneficial — showing when lawmakers shun personal gain for the public good, says Kytja Weir, a project manager for the Center for Public Integrity. “The general mantra is that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you can see [the money], you can see whether or not there is a conflict of interest.”