Learning to trust again: Legislators must not vote on issues where there's conflict

Voices Of The State

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other."

Matthew 6:24, New American Standard Bible

Unfortunately, most Alaska legislators cannot seem to grasp this fundamental principal of conflict of interest. In the final days of the special session, I wrote Speaker John Harris a letter and made the point on the House floor that legislators with clear ties to the oil industry should be recused from voting on the oil tax bill. In light of the recent indictments and convictions and in order to restore the people's trust in the legislative process I believed this was critical.

Under the Uniform Rules of the Alaska Legislature, a legislator must declare any conflict of interest and ask to be allowed to abstain from voting. However, a member is not permitted to abstain, except upon the unanimous consent of the membership. Typically, when a legislator declares a conflict and asks to abstain, other members will object and the legislator with the conflict will be required to vote. Under this scenario, legislators can cover for each other.

For example, if two or more members have a conflict of interest, the first member with the conflict may ask to be recused, but another member with the same conflict may object. When the second member in turn asks to be recused over the same or similar conflict, the first can return the favor.

In order to avoid this situation, I urged all members to refrain from objecting when a legislator with a tie to the oil industry declared a conflict and asked to be recused. My request was ignored. The vote on the oil tax was "business as usual" and those with clear conflicts voted.

The Legislature clearly needs to change its rules. The idea that a legislator can impartially vote on an issue that could directly affect his or her pocketbook is patently absurd.

For example, legislators recently received a copy of an e-mail from an oil industry support group to its members that showed how legislators voted on the new oil tax. The e-mail said that this information will be helpful in future dealings with legislators including the upcoming fundraising season. The e-mail encouraged the membership to "save this information for future reference."

If legislators who have no ties to the industry can be put on notice that they may no longer expect any monetary contributions to their campaigns, how much more leverage do special interest groups have with people who actually work for them or receive income from them? I'd rather cross Tony Soprano over a garbage contract.

Section AS 24.60.010 of the Legislative Ethics Code reads:

1) High moral and ethical standards among public servants in the legislative branch of government are essential to assure the trust, respect and confidence of the people of this state; 2) a fair and open government requires that legislators and legislative employees conduct the public's business in a manner that preserves the integrity of the legislative process and avoids conflicts of interest or even appearances of conflicts of interest ... ."

It is too late to do anything about it with respect to the oil tax vote, but there are many issues which may come before the Legislature where members may have conflicts fishermen, trial lawyers, pilots, doctors, to name but a few.

Let those with conflicts participate in the debates and discussions so that their expertise is not wasted in this citizens' legislature. However, our Legislature must amend its rules so that those with clear conflicts are not able to actually vote. In this way, we can restore the trust of our constituents.

Gabrielle LeDoux is the state representative from Kodiak.



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