It is a wild and wonderful thing to watch new legislators contemplate the pressures they will be under to deliver for constituents and especially for lobbyists.
Wednesday in legislator school we ran through scenarios... You are flown by an industry group to a speaking engagement and offered free golf and hotel and air fare. The industry group will have legislation for you to vote on in the upcoming session. Another: As a legislator voting on a bill that deregulates your company's industry, if you knew that the bill might pass or fail by one or two votes would you disclose your conflict and go ahead and vote as the law says you should, or is this a conflict where you should not vote? Another: your neighbor asks you to write a letter to an agency to get the director to give your neighbor a contract in an open bid process, yet you happen to serve on the Joint Finance Committee where you oversee that agency director's budget.
Not everyone in the room agreed on the answers. I'm not sure the legislative leaders presenting the ethics portion agreed on the answers.
Personally I see lessons to be learned: 1) be very careful what you ask from someone you have power over. It takes next to nothing to imply consequence. 2) On voting, the law says we must, regardless of conflict, vote. I'd ask, should we really if the vote is so heavily divided and there are really winners and losers in this deregulation? Isn't it possible that those who are adversely impacted are not represented in the legislature and that your representing your industry to your legislative friends and colleagues in support of this legislation has skewed the objectivity of the process?
If you hang out around the legislature and our current digs in the old Ada County Courthouse even a little, or if you go to the taxpayers conference and count the industry lobbyists mixed in with the local and legislative elected officials, it feels odd. All the money moving around can get to feel normal though after awhile if you don't keep pinching yourself. I'd disagree with the the legal experts from the Attorney General's office who said that if we report the all the gifts, dinners, air tickets and hotel stays and don't promise anyone any votes, we'll be OK. I've generally returned campaign donations from corporate or business PACs. But look at the Sunshine reports someday where all we legislators get our campaign money. It is very interesting. http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2008scan.htm
We each draw our own lines and make our own claims about whether we are influenced or not. In Idaho law, esteemed Senators like Bart Davis will admit there is a difference between what is ethical and what is legal and warn us not to fall down in the court of public opinion by thinking legality is all that matters. Ethics experts like Kate Kelly have labored to create better laws. Yet the Ags office is assigned to defend that what legislators are doing by common practice is legal. As the law stands, we as legislators are supposed to decide for ourselves what is ethical and just, even if it is technically legal.