BATON ROUGE – When Rep. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, tried last week to get a hearing on the House floor – his third attempt this session -- for a bill to prohibit elected officials from entering into hurricane recovery contracts, 52 of his colleagues tabled the move and buried the ethics proposal in a shallow grave.
On the other hand, the House did manage to advance another measure, this one by Rep. Gary Beard, R-Baton Rouge, banning officials with oversight on hurricane recovery contracts from accepting campaign contributions from those companies or individuals eligible to receive them.
So how do legislators manage to both pass and reject major ethics reforms in the same session?
“It’s because there’s no great public outcry,” said Dr. Bryan-Paul Frost, an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who has taught courses on ethics and politics.
“Ethics are not a tangible sort of issue,” Frost added. “They don’t immediately affect voters like taxes or other things.”
Still, people should be pumping their fists in the air, said Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonprofit group that monitors the activities of state government.
Brandt doesn’t give high marks to the Legislature for its handling of ethics issues over the past few months.
“We were very disappointed there weren’t more robust reforms enacted during the regular session,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot that got done.”
While there have been major strides in recent years -- banning fundraising during sessions, tightening lobbying rules -- Brandt said every year seems to bring with it a few backwards steps.
For instance, Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, filed legislation he later withdrew that would have allowed his friend Patrick Mockler, co-owner of Mockler Beverage, to sell beer to the Santa Maria Golf Course while Mockler was being considered for an appointment to the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, which manages the course.
And Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, pushed to abolish a little-known perk held by New Orleans-area officials that allows them to get people out of jail that have been charged with a municipal violation. It failed in a close vote.
Frost said the teachings of Machiavelli can help shed light on why the Legislature does what it does on matters of ethics, even if no one else can.
For example, if certain politicians believe they can get away with something sinister while appearing to be moral, no matter how immoral or amoral their actions might truly be, they’ll make the push. That’s because, without any repercussions, sinister actions can still be made to seem virtuous.
“For an action to be moral or ethical in the political world, that depends on its ultimate success or failure,” Frost said with a laugh, alluding to the fact that the perceived outcome is sometimes more important to lawmakers than the original intent.
Brandt takes a more pragmatic approach. He said lawmakers are deft at procedural maneuvers that blunt efforts for change.
The committees on governmental affairs in each chamber, both of which handle ethics measures, often won’t allow a bill to reach a floor vote.
“It seems as though they work in tandem,” Brandt said, “or they pass something they know the other house will kill.”
Examples abound: A bill prohibiting lawmakers from accepting free concert and sporting tickets from lobbyists and other interests was approved by the Senate, but it was sent to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee during the final weeks of the session with a wink and a smile because it “has been hostile to this type of ethics reform in the past,” Brandt said.
The committee did pass the measure out to the full House, but it did so with a broad amendment that was likely to catch fire in the lower chamber, supportive lawmakers in the hearing grumbled.
Bills requiring more disclosure by certain agencies and offices didn’t do much better.
“It has not been a good session for sunshine,” Brandt said, invoking the lexicon of public records disclosure advocates.
A bill that would have required public financial statements from groups seeking state money met a quiet death during the session, as did a proposal that would have made public certain documents in the Governor’s office.
The latter example is the reason so many agencies want the cover of the executive branch. The executive branch’s broad exemptions from the state public records law provides shade -- some would say shadow -- from the bright sunshine, according to Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, who sponsored the legislation closing the loophole.
“That’s why everyone wants to be in there,” Bruneau lamented during a speech on the House floor earlier this month.
The reluctance of lawmakers to making sweeping changes is no surprise to Frost.
“Very few people are willing to put restrictions on their own power,” he said.