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Ethics Reform Moving, Even As It's Pushed (Again) To The Back Burner

Courtesy Eric Turner

Although other issues have overshadowed them this session, the Indiana legislature entered the 2015 session with two major goals: pass a budget and write new ethics reforms.

Recent ethics scandals at the Statehouse prompted lawmakers this session to strengthen Indiana’s ethics code. 

The bipartisan legislation is the most sweeping ethics package in a decade.

But some critics say the changes don’t go far enough.

Indiana’s General Assembly is a part-time, citizen legislature, meaning when session is over, lawmakers go back home to their regular jobs.  Legislators say that gives them a unique perspective on issues up for debate at the Statehouse.  But as House Ethics Committee chair Greg Steuerwald (R-Avon) notes, it can also leave the door open for conflicts of interest.

“You have to have that balance between a person’s expertise and being able to share that expertise so the full body understands that bill or statute, but not to the point where they become an advocate if they have  a conflict of interest," Steuerwald says.

It’s that grey area that’s led to a number of recent high-profile conflicts of interest at the Statehouse. Last year, Rep. Eric Turner (R-Cicero) allegedly worked behind the scenes to kill a bill that would have financially hurt his family’s nursing home business.

And this year, the spotlight turned to Rep. Dick Hamm (R-Richmond) after he spoke on the House floor against a bill that would have impacted his funerary business.

Hamm owns two casket-manufacturing companies. In his speech, he demonized a bill that would have allowed certain chemicals to be used to dissolve human remains.

“Now we’re talking about we’re going to put them in acid and just let them dissolve away and let them run down the drain and into the sewers," Hamm said.

After his graphic speech, Hamm cast one of 59 votes that killed the bill.

Incidences like these have soured the public’s perception of the Statehouse.  According to a 2014 Ball State University survey, 66-percent of respondents said Indiana’s ethics laws needed to be strengthened.

“Some people have taken advantage and it’s clear and we have a lot of examples in the last 4-5 years," says Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Portage).

Tallian is part of a coalition of lawmakers working to update Indiana’s code of ethics. The measure contains a series of provisions aimed at increasing transparency and accountability.

Under current law, legislators must fill out a statement of economic interest – a form disclosing the lawmaker’s financial involvement. The bill would expand the definition of employer to include all business entities that make up at least 25-percent of their income. It also requires lawmakers to report any stock holdings worth five thousand dollars or more.

“In terms of disclosure, though, it takes us really from the dark ages to the 21st century, so it makes good strides there, but where it falls short though is in enforcement," says Common Cause Indiana Director Julia Vaughn.

Vaughn says an administrative office should review the legislators’ statements of economic interest, not House and Senate ethics committees, and she recommends allowing citizens to participate in the hearing process once a complaint has been filed.

“We think that that is good for the process, it bring in some outside eyes, some people who are not so close to the problem that they can’t be objective," she says.

Steuerwald, who is co-author of the bill, says the legislation already provides an outside perspective by establishing the office of legislative ethics.  He says the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency would appoint an employee to serve in an advisory role to lawmakers.

“We thought it would be a fruitful discussion to include them in interpretation of the statement of economic interest statute as well as the code of ethics – kind of an independent entity who can help the ethics committee form some opinions," Steuerwald says.

The measure doesn’t just deal with the legislature – it also updates Indiana’s ethics laws when it comes to state employees.  For example, the legislation prohibits the use of state resources for political purposes – a response to ethics violations by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

While the bill calls for each legislator to undergo a mandatory ethics rules seminar each year, Vaughn says true institutional change must come from the lawmakers themselves.

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