Who the hell do these people think they are?
On Wednesday, Republicans in the House State Affairs Committee killed a bill — supported by the committee’s Republican chairman — that would have required legislators to disclose some details of their personal incomes and business interests, a proposal unanimously approved by a bipartisan working group, and aimed at providing more government transparency to the public, something deeply lacking in Idaho.
Idahoans deserve to know when their lawmakers would benefit financially from their votes. We should be aware of conflicts of interests. It’s such a universally accepted premise and a fundamental tenet of democracy, in fact, that all but two states, Idaho being one, have a similar disclosure law on their books.
If you believe, as Idaho Republicans would like you to, that they would never vote for their own financial benefit, we’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Last year, the Associated Press compared disclosure forms with lawmaker votes from legislatures across the country (but not Idaho; remember, we don’t have a disclosure law) and found numerous cases where lawmakers voted to benefit themselves, “including a Nevada senator who cast multiple votes benefiting clients of his lobbying firm, an Iowa lawmaker who championed and voted for a tax break that allowed his welding and machine shop to avoid paying sales tax on many supplies and two Hawaii lawmakers who sponsored and voted for legislation that smoothed the legal speed bumps their companies navigate.”
Idahoans should be stunned by the gall displayed by our conservative lawmakers, who tried to paint themselves as “regular citizens” immune from scrutiny.
Hogwash. When you’re elected to public office, you’re no longer a private citizen. That’s a sacrifice you make when you represent the public. That concept has now been squashed by the Idaho Legislature.
We also find it hard to believe that most Idahoans view their lawmakers as “regular citizens.” According to a 2015 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust, 13 percent of Idaho legislators listed agri-business as their occupation. Nine percent were lawyers, and 31 percent either owned a business or made money through business ventures.
Wouldn’t you at least like the option of checking whether any of them were casting votes to line their own pockets?
Rep. Christy Zito, a Republican from Hammett who helped kill the bill, said, “For me, with most of the constituents in my district, if they want to know something they can ask.”
Zito’s District 23 includes western Twin Falls County, so consider this our request: We’d like to see a list of your income sources. You can mail it to our office, 132 W. Fairfield St. in Twin Falls.
Same with everyone else in the Legislature.
Vito Barbieri, another Republicans who helped kill the bill, said, “I don’t see why this should see the light of day. I just don’t agree that the Idaho public thinks that this body is full of dishonest individuals. I just don’t buy that.”
No, the public doesn’t think the Legislature is full of sleazebags, and that’s certainly not the motivating factor behind the bill. But we’d at least like the opportunity to make sure for ourselves rather than taking lawmakers’ words for it.
We’ve all heard the phrase: trust but verify. Lawmakers are asking us to trust them, but they’re preventing us from verifying. In doing so, they’re sustaining an environment where corruption can run unchecked.
This smacks of the kind of elitism that’s the very antithesis of the American ideal. In a democracy like ours, people must have confidence their government is doing what’s best for the public, not themselves, and the ability to hold elected officials accountable.
Zito, with no sense of irony, offered this bit of hyperbole: “I feel like we’re on the edge of a George Orwell book with thought police here, asking people to disclose what they think, down the road, may be a conflict of interest.”
Perhaps Zito isn’t familiar with Orwell. In his style, governments would be crafting rules to benefit the political elite, exactly what we saw in the Soviet-style system that was the prime metaphor for his best-known books.
Barbieri went even further, proving he’s in desperate need of a civics lesson: “To focus on legislator sources of income, spousal sources of income, is to put a target on our back to many groups and individuals nationwide that would work to silence various ideologies, various voices, by attacking the economics. We’ve seen that on a national scale with O’Reilly and Hannity.”
In fact, advertisers pulled support from these men — neither elected officials, by the way — not because of their ideologies but because Bill O’Reilly paid out millions of dollars to settle numerous sexual harassment allegations, a revelation that led to his firing. Advertisers ditched Sean Hannity because he hitched his wagon to an alleged serial child predator, Roy Moore. These were consequences of moral indiscretions, not political ideology.
Besides, Americans have a long and successful history of using boycotts as political protest. A bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., turned the tide in the Civil Rights Movement, for example. Perhaps the most famous was the Colonial boycott of British goods in 1769. Or, more recently, America’s Olympics boycott of 1980.
Consider this hypothetical scenario: If, say, Barbieri had a business that benefited from a piece of legislation he championed, the public would be well within its rights to boycott that business. By blocking this bill, Barbieri and others hope to prevent the public from punishing lawmakers who line their own pockets through their positions of power.
We’ll concede that, as presented, the bill did have some flaws. Most bills do when they first hit committees. It’s the committees’ jobs to perfect these flaws. In this case, lawmakers didn’t even bother trying. Of the 15 legislators on the committee who attended the meeting, only Democrats Paulette Jordan and Elaine Smith joined the committee’s Republican chairman, Tom Loertscher, in supporting the measure.
Loertscher deserves kudos for doing the right thing, even if it meant splitting with his party. He even emphasized, in vain, that continuing to keep the sources of legislator incomes a secret will lead to more failing grades from government-transparency watchdog groups.
And so, like with so many other issues, Idaho will continue to be ranked as one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to government transparency. Our lawmakers just don’t seem to care, so long as they can continue to keep secrets and protect their own financial interests.
State Affairs failed Idahoans on Wednesday. It’s time for reasonable Republicans — especially those in the Magic Valley delegation — to do the right thing and resurrect this sensible legislation.