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Solid LA ethics reform not difficult; only requires will

Within two months Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal overwhelmingly is likely to keep his paramount campaign promise and thereby call a special session on ethics reform. From a laundry list of suggestions can be derived an ideal package of reforms.

First, the system needs expansion, but smart expansion. Many argue the current system has too little enforcement as it is, and Jindal’s ideas would increase it. But enforcement also is made more difficult when so many exceptions currently are carved into the ethics code. By making no exceptions whatsoever – in other words, no gifts of any kind from lobbyists – these become readily apparent, cutting down on enforcement costs.

Along the same lines, third-party loans can be prohibited. Actually, these are tightly regulated as of now – they have to be “standard” in the sense of rates must be market, typical lengths etc. or they become classified as donations – but overseeing them does create more bureaucracy thus cost.

However, loans made to the candidate by himself should be retained – any American should have the right to be foolish enough to blow as much of his own money as he wants on his own tries for elective office. But, to prevent obscure personal gifts to a candidate from finding their way to paying off personal debt, candidates would be prohibited from paying it back with their own personal funds except for the legal personal contribution limit (which depends on level of office) to his campaign. This would decrease the amount of loans and force candidates who are serious about using their own funds to put more of them into campaigns as gifts rather than loans. Combined, these changes in lending laws would decrease the total amount of supervision necessary.

As a result of these changes, the definition of “lobbyist” also should be tightened. Currently, only people who have at least part of their job lobbying activities (defined as a direct act or communication with a legislator, the purpose of which is to aid in influencing the passage or defeat of any legislation) and spend at least $200 doing so are covered. With the exclusion of gifts, that should go to zero dollars.

Finally, income disclosure should take the form of the bill sabotaged at the end of the last legislative session which would require stringent reporting by anybody elected or appointed to a position in government anywhere in Louisiana. Other states do it, why it not Louisiana?

Of course, even with simplifying the system which will save money this increased level of enforcement will more than offset savings that will raise overall costs. Therefore, greater efficiency can reduce costs through required electronic filing of reports – no more paper copies requiring scanning that would make much more expensive storage and cross-checking. There is no reason that in this day and time lobbyists and campaigns cannot have access one way or another to the simple computer resources necessary to accomplish this.

Still, more money will have to be spent on enforcement. A dedicated funding source is a good idea, although the use of filing fees is not because other qualifications to run for office exist besides paying a fee and forcing all to pay fees could prevent some people from running on cost considerations. Instead, make it something simple, like the Legislature automatically must appropriate each year an amount of dollars (inflation adjusted per year) equaling the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election (that’s $1,297,840 for 2008 if this went into effect, a hefty increase over current funding) for funding enforcement activities.

This increased funding could be used to hire extra people to vet reports, including the use of software to check them singly and to cross-check them (the money for new facilities to do this should come from a capital outlay request in the next budget cycle), as well as to pursue complaints further. A sampling procedure also could be employed with these funds to scan reports visually and to launch investigations on that basis.

These are bold reforms that will meet resistance in the Legislature, especially among the many mossbacks now in the Senate. But Jindal should not be afraid to climb these golden stairs, and hopefully his advisory committee will produce recommendations as aggressive as these, if Jindal really is serious about setting the “gold standard” in this regard.

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