Serious efforts to create laws governing Ethics in the state legislature have finally gotten into some critical specifics, although there are some obvious political party disputes at work and their fears about how to conduct fundraising activities. Some of the proposals the current committee working in Nashville are long, long overdue and all lawmakers need to keep in mind that the public good is the most important aspect and political party worries are the least important.
Not only has the federal probe, dubbed the "Tennessee Waltz", brought accusations against state lawmakers, but also county officials have accused as well. When you link to this the statewide "Tarnished Shield" probe into corruption in law enforcement, citing crimes ranging from illegal drug distribution to money laundering, then our state's safety is clearly at stake.
Here are some of my suggestions for real change.
1.) One committee recommendation that should be made law is plain: elected officials (state and I would also add local officeholders, too) should not be receiving or accepting gifts, travel, free meals and entertainment. If a paid lobbyist or party official cannot use the power of logical or sound business ideas to urge support for an issue before the state, then tough. This would not prevent an elected official from speaking to a Kiwanis Club or other group, as long as no pay and yes, no meal, is a part of their appearance.
2.) All votes in the state legislative meetings and committees must be recorded and votes posted for public view. How can any resident of the state expect honesty and accountability when committees can meet in secret sessions where no vote is officially recorded? As Sen. Rosalind Kurita, D-Clarksville said, "I was disappointed that they [the ethics committee] did not address secret meetings or the legislative work schedule. And we need online access for all votes. The panel did some good work, but I believe Tennessee deserves better."
Republican Hamblen County Commissioner Linda Noe, and a few other commissioners, has kept up a steady drumbeat on the issue of Openness and Accountability in her commission votes and on her web log, and the public response has been quite positive.
State Representative Frank Buck echoes those very sentiments, noting in his essay printed in "The Tennessean" : AccountabilityA record of legislative votes should be readily available to all voters. On voice votes in committees, legislators have the choice of voting contrary to the call of the chair.
3.) End the special privileges and secrecy surrounding lobbyists. There are a few simple rules that would bring major changes. While the current Ethic Committee suggestions call for a one-year ban on moving from elected office to a lobbyist job, I say say make it longer. Make it a four-year ban, which would prevent them from having access to the legislature and their business until at least the end of one gubernatorial term. The committee also had two other suggestions that would aid in making the lobbyist influence transparent to voters and the press alike.
First, Require lobbyists to disclose any family members in state government.
And Second, Require lobbyists and their employers to disclose payments for lobbying and money spent on lobbying.
The residents of this state, whether in a business organization, a political party organization, or just a private citizen would then know how many untold thousands and thousands of dollars are being heaped upon lawmakers to influence legislation.
4.) The Ethics Committee still has much work to do, but I think they are missing a golden opportunity to enact changes that include the participation of the public in general -- a committee to review any questions of ethics violations seems appropriate, HOWEVER, this panel needs to also include two or more average residents -- not a CEO, not a state employee, not another private business club member and not someone who has already served in some elected office. A private citizen is a must, someone who would bring eyes to this process not already tinted by the view of "that's just how we have been doing business."
I'll have more later this week on the issue of the endless political party fundraising in Tennessee and how that money needs to be tracked.
Your comments and suggestions on this are most welcome here. This is YOUR state and without your voice, true change will never take place.