Trying to Blunt the Impact of “Special-interest solons”
I thought it worth noting the item “Special-interest solons” from today’s Political Scene column in the ProJo:
[Rep. Douglas W.] Gablinske [D-Bristol]…recently asked the state Ethics Commission to address this question: “how full-time union employees, who are also legislators, are able to promote union interests through legislation.”
In a letter to the commission, Gablinske said the answer the commission’s staff lawyer Jason Gramitt gave lawmakers at an ethics refresher course last month at the State House “was less than satisfactory to me.” (Gramitt’s answer at the time: “If they are just employees or there’s a class-exception that applies, the code as it is currently written in most cases will allow that kind of action.”)
In his letter, Gablinske said: “It’s quite one thing for a mason or carpenter who happens to belong to a union and is also a legislator to be ‘class exempted’ when dealing with union/legislative conflicts; however, it is quite another when the sole purpose of the legislator is to promote ‘union legislative interests’ over the ‘general interest of the taxpayers.’ ”
While both the Ethics Commission and the General Assembly have the power to tighten the code, “for objective reasons, I think it best the commission deals with it,” he wrote.
Democrat Gablinske is raising a variation on a question Republican Governor Carcieri posed in a Sept. 20, 2006, letter to the commission. Carcieri suggested the adoption of clear ban on voting by a legislator “on any measure that affects a business or industry from which the legislator (or a member of his or her immediate family or business associates) receives more than a minimal amount of his or her income.”
Carcieri did not focus on union employees alone. In his letter to the commission, he wrote: “Every year, paid union representatives vote on legislation — including the state budget — that directly impacts their employers. Criminal attorneys vote on changes to the criminal code. And insurance brokers vote on bills that would change how we regulate the insurance industry. Voting on a bill that directly impacts the person or business that is signing your paycheck is an obvious conflict of interest.”
Gramitt late last week said he would give copies of Gablinske’s letter to the Ethics Commission members at their next meeting later this month and “they can decide whether they want to throw it into the hopper with the other things they are discussing regulation-wise …”
Kudos to Rep. Gablinske for exercising a bit of good-government, watch-doggedness. Add him to the list of Democratic “solons” who “get it” (at least in this respect).
Here’s my suggestion for how to deal with this problem:
1. Disclose such “appearance” conflicts by requiring legislators to identify their employers (we do this already);
2. So long as the vote does not confer a direct benefit on the legislator or his/her spouse, let the legislators vote, but make sure that all votes are publicly recorded so that the legislator can be held accountable (we do this already, too); and
3. If anyone thinks any particular legislator is abusing the system, RUN AGAINST HIM/HER IN THE NEXT ELECTION (I don’t think we’ve really tried this one yet)!!
I do believe that the Gov. is well intentioned, but why doesn’t he just identify the four or five legislators whom he believes are the worst offenders, and then work really hard to defeat them? That would accomplish a lot more than another set of complex ethics rules.
“… it is quite another when the sole purpose of the legislator is to promote ‘union legislative interests’ over the ‘general interest of the taxpayers.’ ”
Actually, this goes to the heart of one of the biggest problems in Rhode Island, on both the state and local levels. (How absurd is it to have teacher union members and/or their spouses serving on School Committees? Or on City/Town Councils, the body that funds municipal contracts?)
My comment is subject to Anthony’s take. But my initial reaction is that this is very good and Rep. Gablinske is to be commended.
Valid ideas, brassband, particularly that of running against candidates who you think are the worst offenders. The problem is, those who step forward to challenge entrenched political machines (such as the two N.P. council candidates who dare to challenge the Mollis and Lombardi machines) become fodder for the attack dogs of the establishment.
You need not just a strong idealist, but someone who a virtual @#$% you attitude to take on these people.