In Idaho, legislative corruption is the norm | Opinion
This editorial was published by the Idaho Statesman of Boise.
For a long time, Idaho was one of the few states in the country that did not take legislative corruption seriously. Lawmakers should change that this session by amending House and Senate rules to require recusal for conflict of interest.
In the majority of states, it is illegal, unconstitutional, or a violation of legislative rules for a legislator to vote on a bill that will have a financial impact on him, his businesses, or his financial assets. But in Idaho, lawmakers simply have to declare their conflict.
That is, Idaho’s legislative rules explicitly allow legislative corruption, as long as it is transparent. Once a legislator announces his conflict, “the Member is presumed to act in good faith and in the public interest”, as the rules of the House indicate. This is a bad assumption.
There are recent and egregious examples of conflicts of interest that undermine public confidence that the Legislative Assembly is working in the interest of the general public.
The recent example of former Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, was particularly glaring. Zollinger works as an attorney representing Medical Recovery Services, an eastern Idaho medical debt collector who has long been criticized for his abusive medical debt collection practices. In 2020, the Idaho Patient Act was drafted and introduced, largely to address SRM practices in particular.
Zollinger’s conflict of interest in this case was striking and obviously should have excluded him from the vote on the bill. But, following Idaho’s legislative rules, he debated and voted against the bill. It boggles the mind that he did it in the public interest rather than his own.
This is hardly the only case where members of the public have reason to suspect that the business of the Legislative Assembly is conducted with a special eye on the business interests of individual legislators.
As the Idaho Press’s Betsy Russell reported in the 2021 regular session, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane struck down a bill that allowed county clerks to begin the process of compiling the postal ballots received before election day, which facilitates the rapid announcement of the results. . Crane, whose family owns a business involved in alarms and video surveillance, objected to some counties using YouTube to broadcast the ballot counting process in the interests of transparency.
In another case, Crane’s conflict of interest was even more acute. His company had lost a major alarm contract with the Boise School District after a series of fire department inspections. In 2021, he introduced legislation stemming from exactly this situation that would exempt alarm system upgrades from certain inspections, as Russell reported.
The public should not constantly doubt whether legislators are pursuing the public interest or their own.
There would be complications in creating a rule that ended legislative corruption in Idaho, but they are not insurmountable.
A common objection, for example, is that a large number of Idaho lawmakers are involved in agriculture. Should every farmer abstain from any vote on agricultural policy?
No. The general standard for conflict of interest rules is that a bill under consideration would affect a legislator substantially or significantly more than a member of the general public.
In many states, lawmakers make a conflict of interest declaration in writing long before their committee or chamber deals with legislation where they might have a conflict. This could be handed to their committee chair or their chamber chair, who, with the help of legal counsel, can determine whether a lawmaker should be excluded from the vote.
Lawmakers should review state rules that require recusal in response to a conflict of interest and draft their own. This would go a long way in ensuring that lawmakers are doing the people’s business in the people’s household, not theirs.