Wednesday, February 14, 2007

State employee legislators -- part 2

Rep. John Sinrud's bill to ban sitting state legislators from accepting paid positions as state employees passed the Montana House 51-49. In spite of the fact that Republicans pointed out that this bill had more ethical logic to it than does the ban on legislators getting employment as lobbyists for two years after leaving office -- something that Democrats wanted -- only the Republicans were behind this particular reform.

Sinrud pointed out that both the Missoulian and the Bozeman Chronicle support his bill -- something he isn't used to. He jokingly said that he hoped their support wouldn't kill the bill. (Note: stricly speaking, the Missoulian editorial expresses a belief that the practice of giving a legislator a paying state job is already prohibited by the Montana Constitution. It doesn't suggest whether it believes the matter should be addressed through the legislature or through the court system. We were unable to locate quickly the Chronicle editorial.)

There were a couple of misleading points to the AP article and Gazette headline. First, the headline (like the title of our own blog entry) misleadingly implies that under this proposed law, state employees couldn't become legislators. All would be banned, however, is having a sitting legislator accept a paid state position. If the legislator ran as a non-employee, he would need to stay that way. It is an issue of transparency. It would not prevent individuals who are already state employees from running for the legislature -- voters can sort out for themselves whether they think there is a potential conflict of interest or not.

Second, the article ends by saying that Rep. Kevin Furey, D-Missoula, objected because the bill would prevent legislators from joining the Montana National Guard. Rep. Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, quickly pointed out, however, that the Montana Constitution specifically allows legislators to join the state guard or militia, so that argument was a red herring -- the article should have reported Milburn's part of the exchange, since most readers would rightly object to a bill that would prevent anyone from joining the Guard.

All of this was, of course, an unintended consequence of the Kitzenberg party-switch, a switch tainted by appearances of impropriety since he had, just a few months before, accepted an unadvertised state job from the governor.

Given that the Democrats are currently portraying themselves as the party of transparency, one would think that they would want to defuse this as a future campaign issue by helping pass this bill. The party-line vote indicates that we can instead expect that this particular piece of ethics legislation will be shot down in the Democrat-controlled state Senate. The campaign ads for 2008 on this subject are already writing themselves.

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