News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

April 29, 2013

GUEST EDITORIAL: General Assembly puts self-interests ahead of Hoosiers’ best interests

INDIANAPOLIS — One obvious answer to the rampant promotion of personal interests in the Indiana General Assembly is greater transparency.

Report all outside income and financial ties. Make clear exactly whom campaign contributions and other gifts come from, and stop allowing influence-seekers to hide their activities under surrogate names. End the insulting practice of letting meals bought by lobbyists for legislators go unreported unless they cost more than $50.

Common sense and basic ethics. Yet there’s no sign of movement into such sunlight, despite a flurry of media attention to the ingrained coziness between lawmakers and special interests.

Nor — and this may be the key — is there much embarrassment about conflicts even when they’re exposed.

Two egregious examples made the news last week.

The coal industry won protection, at the expense of consumers, thanks to two legislators who hold high-level jobs in coal and the railroads that haul it.

A lobbyist for a company seeking a multimillion-dollar state contract got help from her father, a House leader, just a week after the governor placed a hold on state aid the lawmaker reportedly helped obtain for his son’s company.

In both instances, the elected officials insisted they were objective stewards of the public’s will and wouldn’t dream of acting out of personal interest.

The stakes are especially high in the case of the Rockport coal-to-gas conversion project, a nearly $3 billion deal that will cost utility ratepayers dearly if the price of natural gas, now low by historical standards, does not rise over time.

State Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, chairman of the Senate Utility Committee, and Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R-Bloomfield, succeeded in turning back efforts by both parties to add consumer protections to the Rockport bill.

The Senate passed the bill; the House sponsor, Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, declined to call it for a vote because she didn’t care for the watering-down.

The proposed safeguards just didn’t make good policy, insisted Merritt, who is a vice president with Indiana Rail Road Co., and Ubelhor, who is operations manager for Peabody Energy. Their employers echoed those sentiments to The Star’s Tony Cook.

That same proclamation of pure impartiality was expressed by House Speaker Pro Tempore Eric Turner, R-Cicero, regarding the company for which his daughter just happens to be a lobbyist and the company his son just happens to head.

In neither of these cases did the legislators involved broadcast their personal ties to the lobbies or offer to recuse themselves from the proceedings. In some states, potential conflicts such as these would raise red flags and force at least the consideration of recusal — and without having to be ferreted out by the press. In Indiana, the typical response to calls for these and other reforms is wounded indignation.

The primary defense offered for the Indiana situation is that a part-time legislature inevitably feels the intrusion of day jobs, and thus the challenge of staying neutral. The preponderance of evidence, particularly as detailed in a recent series of columns by The Star’s Matthew Tully, is that the challenge is not being met and the intrusions are a fact of Statehouse life. As Julia Vaughn of the citizens lobby Common Cause points out, many states manage to have citizen legislatures without cutting slack over conflict of interest.

Stringent rules, rather than blind trust, are a fact of life in other realms of government. Transparency. Money limits. Distancing from one’s employers, benefactors and family. Barring a change in human nature and a reversal of Indiana history, there is no excuse for not writing stronger protections, in all those areas, into law.

— The Indianapolis Star

 

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