Ethics Commission Staff Wrong Place for Cuts

Buried in the bipartisan state budget compromise unveiled yesterday was a steep cut to the tiny budget of the Independent Ethics Commission, reducing the commission's staff from two to one.
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Buried in the bipartisan state budget compromise unveiled yesterday was a steep cut to the tiny budget of the Independent Ethics Commission (IEC), reducing the commission's staff from two to one and placing Colorado solidly in last place in staff support among the forty-plus states that have ethics commissions. The tiny savings that would be generated from the proposed cuts simply do not compare to the damage a reduction in force would do to this fledgling agency.

Cynics would say it is no surprise that these tough economic times would provide an excuse for legislators to gut the IEC. Opposition to Amendment 41 and the Ethics Commission it created was as strong among officeholders and Capitol Hill lobbyists as support for the measure was in the state as a whole -- the measure was approved by over 62% of the electorate. And the nonpartisan commission has not hesitated to decline legislators' requests for permission to engage in activities the commissioners believed would violate ethics standards.

Let's hope the cynics are wrong. It would be a shame, and ultimately counterproductive, if such considerations influenced the legislature in its decision to cut the IEC's budget. While the amendment's "gift ban" provision limiting most gifts to public officials to $50 a year received the most attention, the heart of the amendment was to create the IEC as an independent, nonpartisan forum for interpreting and enforcing ethics standards that apply to elected officials and most state and local government employees. The five members of the Commission, mostly former legislators themselves, serve as volunteers to decide ethical questions presented through complaints or requests for advisory opinions and letter rulings, but they can't operate without help. A full-time staff is necessary to help screen and investigate complaints and follow up on critical factual issues that have to be resolved in order to issue a decision.

Under Amendment 41, the Commission -- not complaining parties -- is responsible for investigating complaints and making findings. Staff resources are necessary to insure that officials accused of ethical misconduct are either exonerated or punished promptly. It wasn't until January of this year that the IEC finally enacted rules that put the focus of any proceedings under an ethics complaint on its own internal investigation, not on evidence gathered by private-party complainants. Cuts to the commissions' staff couldn't come at a worse time.

In addition to investigating complaints and helping the Commission with needed research for ethics opinions, IEC staff also have an important role to play in preventing ethics problems before they happen. Ethics Commission staff recently started providing training and written guidance for state employees and elected officials. Cuts to IEC staff would necessarily result in a severe reduction, if not outright elimination, of the IEC's proactive attempts to make sure ethics violations don't happen in the first place, as the IEC will have to give priority to its legally-mandated investigation and interpretation efforts.

Importantly, Colorado's ethics commission staff is already very small for a state of this size. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states have some form of ethics commission. Ethics Watch's inquiries of the other states with ethics commissions revealed that Alaska and Delaware, like Colorado, make do with only two full-time staff members; no other state (except Utah, whose commission was just founded and has not yet hired anyone) has a smaller staff. At the other end of the spectrum, the California Fair Political Practices Commission has eighty full-time staff members. Of our neighboring states with ethics commissions, Kansas has a staff of nine, Nebraska has eight, and Oklahoma has six.

The tiny amount the IEC could contribute toward closing the multi-million dollar budget gap simply doesn't compare to the damage that could be done to our state by gutting the Ethics Commission before it has a chance to fully come into its own. The legislature should protect against lengthy delays in IEC rulings and help prevent future ethics violations from happening by restoring the proposed cuts to the IEC's budget.

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