Two weeks ago, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee drove home my point. Committee members approved several ethics bills, but only after watering down key provisions in them. They stonewalled other bills that would tighten some of the gaping loopholes in Louisiana's ethics law. It was not a pretty sight.
The most serious ethics bills were pushed by a coalition of business and civic groups known as LA Ethics 1, whose Web site (www.laethics1.com) offers a great primer on the subject. This is not rocket science, folks. The rest of the world thinks we're governed by a bunch of self-serving crooks, which may or may not be the case, but it's up to us to change that perception -- or continue to wallow in the nation's economic backwater.
As an example of how important this stuff is, ask yourself this question: Do you really think we lost that German steel mill because Alabama is a better location than Louisiana? Think about it: we've got the Mississippi River, which brings goods to and from the heartland of the world's richest nation. What industrial giant wouldn't want that kind of access? Now think about what keeps companies from coming here. (Hint: it ain't the humidity.) Here's another question to ponder: Why did Louisiana have to put up $400 million in cash, plus hundreds of millions in other intangibles, just to get in the game? Answer: because we have to overcome our reputation, and that kind of clearance doesn't come cheap.
But tougher ethics laws don't cost a dime. They do, however, require courage and intellectual honesty on the part of legislators -- and that's rare.
Leaders of LA Ethics 1, which is spearheaded by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, knew they were in for a tough fight when they announced their package of ethics bills. I doubt, however, that they anticipated the hostile reception they got from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on May 9.
The most important bills in the LA Ethics 1 package tighten the rules on financial disclosure by legislators, statewide elected officials, candidates for state office and lobbyists. Those also are the bills that lawmakers are loath to enact. Why do you suppose that's the case?
Consider the case of Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge. Greene, an attorney, has received undisclosed sums of money from a lobbyist for providing legal services. The lobbyist receives undisclosed sums of money from special interests for his efforts to influence legislators like Greene, who sees nothing wrong with this picture.
And Greene is not alone.
Are you getting the picture now as to why we didn't get that German steel mill?
But it's not as if no lawmakers get it. Rep. Carl Crane, another Baton Rouge Republican, filed HB 138 to require legislators to disclose income they receive from lobbyists and from principals and employers of lobbyists. Crane, a veteran lawmaker, got such a chilly reception from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee during "Ethics Day" hearings that he moved to defer his bill rather than see it go down in flames.
But at least he got a hearing, if one could call it that.
Rep. Michael Jackson, D-Baton Rouge, filed HB 730 to require lawmakers and legislative candidates to disclose annually their income, assets and liabilities, and to disclose if they or their spouses received more than $250 during the previous calendar year from either the state or any "gaming" interests. Rep. Mert Smiley, R-Port Vincent, filed a similar bill that would also apply to statewide elected officials and statewide candidates. The committee heard neither bill, even though both were on the agenda that day.
And what of the bills that passed?
The committee approved a bill to require the executive director of the Ethics Board to give up outside employment. That's a slap at ethics "watchdog" R. Gray Sexton, who apparently sees nothing wrong with hiring his own self out as an attorney even as he polices lawmakers' conflicts of interest. Lawmakers are always eager to mend somebody else's ways.
In another bit of cynicism, the committee approved a measure requiring lobbyists to disclose the subject matters they will be promoting (or opposing), but deleted a requirement that the disclosure forms be filed electronically -- so the reports will not be easily researched via an online database. That way, lawmakers can say they voted for lobbyist disclosure, but the chances of you finding out much about any lobbyists as a result of this "reform" are remote.
Many of these same lawmakers will be looking for your vote in October. They're counting on you not paying attention to all this -- or being too stupid to care.