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Just a First Step 

While Team Jindal was busy popping corks and patting itself on the back last Tuesday, the rest of us were trying to figure out what actually got done in the special session on ethics reform. To be sure, the state took a giant step forward in terms of trying to polish its image. Just as certain, however, is the notion that the crooks have already figured new ways around the new laws.

First, let's take stock of the good news.

The major accomplishments came in four areas: financial disclosure, conflicts-of-interest legislation, campaign finance reform and lobbyist regulation.

Louisiana now has some of the most far-reaching financial disclosure requirements in the land. Lawmakers, statewide elected officials, local elected officials, members of many state boards and commissions, and the governor's cabinet members and top aides will have to disclose details about their personal finances, including income, debts and assets. The filings also should be easier to access online.

The same is true of our conflicts-of-interest laws, although lawmakers deserve credit for expanding the reach proposed by Jindal " who wanted to exclude some of his top aides. Legislators, governor's executive staff and cabinet members and their spouses will be barred from new state contracts. Existing contracts must end no later than 2012.

While lawmakers tightened some ethical strings around themselves and the governor, lobbyists were practically strung up this go-round. They now must file more detailed and more frequent reports disclosing their clients, compensation, the subject matter being lobbied, and business relationships with public officials and their spouses. Reports will be filed monthly " and electronically. In addition, lawmakers begrudgingly put a $50 per 'occurrence" limit on lobbyist entertainment of lawmakers. What is an 'occurrence?"

In the area of campaign finance reform, so-called '527" political groups now must file disclosure reports, and third-party political ads will have to list the sponsoring group's full name and contact information and state whether a candidate authorized the ad. In a key showdown between lawmakers and Jindal, the governor had to accept a proposal to bar third parties from paying candidates' ethics fines. That provision was amended onto Jindal's '527" legislation.

Other areas of improvement include requiring disclosure by nongovernmental entities that get state funds, enshrining the state Office of Inspector General in Louisiana's statutes, strengthening the New Orleans inspector general's investigative authority, and making it easier for citizens to track state spending online.

Not yet in law but hopefully now in practice, the Senate made available on its Web site the video archives of all of its committee meetings. (The House has been doing this for years.) Equally important, conference committee meetings were open to the public and broadcast on the Internet.

The news wasn't all good, however. The financial disclosure bill was amended to let judges off the hook " with the understanding that the state Supreme Court will develop and adopt disclosure requirements by June. If that happens, and if the requirements are as tough as those on everybody else, it will be a win. We'll have to wait and see.

Another 'wait and see" issue is whether the Ethics Administration will get the money and staff it needs to enforce all the new rules. And speaking of the Ethics Board, Jindal and lawmakers took a step backward in stripping the board of its adjudicatory authority and directing administrative law judges " who are appointed by the executive branch " to decide ethics cases. 'This change created new opportunities for political influence over ethics rulings," wrote Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) president Jim Brandt.

Finally, one development that PAR called 'ugly" was Jindal's defeat of a bill that would have removed the general exception to public records laws that the governor's office now enjoys. As PAR noted, '[T]his resistance seems particularly inappropriate considering the new governor's promotion of more transparency in government."

Jindal deserves a high five, but he did not, as he claims, hit a grand slam. Ethical governance, like freedom itself, requires constant vigilance " and enforcement. The session was merely the first step in a long, long journey.

Correction " In my column 'Finally, Relevance" (Feb. 19), I incorrectly wrote that Kansas held a Republican primary on the same date (Feb. 9) as the Louisiana primary. Kansas held GOP caucuses on Feb. 9. I apologize for the error.


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