Who’s to blame for problems with legislators?

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007

One sitting lawmaker and two former lawmakers indicted. More indictments expected. Guilty pleas by two oil-field company executives. Charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy.

Where will it end?

The cynical will say they aren’t surprised by the news coming out of Juneau.

Some will use recent events to paint all lawmakers as crooks and say not one of them can be trusted.

Of course, to say that everything’s rotten in the Capitol is just as untrue as it to say all is well.

While those indicted should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, the indictments give rise to the question: What happened to that age-old standard code of conduct for public officials — avoid any appearance of wrongdoing?

It’s not enough for them not to do any wrong; public officials must avoid doing things that give the wrong impression about their actions. It’s a tough standard, but one that should never be relaxed.

In the midst of the scandal, ethics reform legislation has been making its way through the House and Senate. Reforms clearly are needed to close loopholes and clarify what’s acceptable behavior, but the legislation skirts the real issue.

Ethics legislation is not the answer because ethics can’t be legislated. You either have them or you don’t; you either want them or you don’t.

Lawmakers know right from wrong. Unfortunately, some may think Alaskans don’t care if they do the right thing. Even worse, some may think an action becomes wrong only if it comes to light.

It’s easy to blame the nature of politics for the alleged corruption, but the blame should be placed a little closer to home. Low voter turnout shows just how little we care; ironically, that same apathy results in statements such as: “I told you none of them could be trusted. That’s politics.”

Even if we do manage to go to the polls, our job as citizens is not over. We like to talk about elected officials as “servants” and the public as “the boss.” But effective bosses don’t leave their employees to wallow in the mud. Citizens must be clear that they expect a high standard from those they put in office.

Alaskans also should consider if the nature of the state’s legislative system could contribute to corruption. It’s virtually impossible to be a working person and a legislator. The 120-day sessions (plus special sessions) mean that a person needs to be self-employed, retired, wealthy or have a working spouse in order to serve as a legislator. Plus, with any task — not just legislative work — humans are notorious for taking as much time as they are given to complete their work and then pushing the deadline just a little more. Why not tell legislators they have 90 days to do their job? Period.

Is it possible the two-party system also breeds things we don’t want in government? Far too often, the partisan politics divides instead of bringing Alaskans together for the good of the entire state.

Will the news coming out of Juneau inspire action or apathy among Alaskans? It’s too soon to tell, but if Alaskans are smart, they will use the stories coming out of the Capitol to make some changes that will lead to real reform.

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