WASHINGTON -- Legislators in four states - Michigan, Idaho, Utah and Vermont - operate under such weak ethics laws that a national watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity, reported last February that they had the laxest standards in the nation. In a review of legislative action this year, stateline.org found none of these states had fixed the chief weaknesses cited by CPI, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
In its report, Hidden Agendas , CPI gave the Michigan, Idaho and Vermont legislatures failing grades because members of each of them are not required to disclose their sources of outside income.
In fact, Michigan, Idaho and Vermont lawmakers do not have to file financial disclosure forms of any kind. They can invest in, work for and represent companies that have business before the legislature without anyone being the wiser.
CPI rated Utah only marginally better. In Utah, lawmakers determine for themselves whether and when to disclose financial or other relationships that may pose conflicts of interest.
Disclosure laws, combined with other regulations, are designed to protect the public from legislators who act solely in their own self-interest.
All but nine of the statehouses in the nation are run by part-time lawmakers, many of whom do outside work for the companies they regulate. By disclosing their private interests and those of their family members, lawmakers give the public critical tools for determining if conflicts of interest exist.
In only one of the four states cited for having the laxest standards, Michigan, did a lawmaker introduce a bill this year to compel his colleagues to disclose their financial interests. Michigan's legislature has yet to adjourn, but the bill's prospects are slim.
House Bill 4815 would require state officials and candidates for office to report outside sources of income of $1,000 or more, for themselves, their spouses and other immediate family members. The bill also would require legislators and candidates to disclose their working relationships with businesses, non-profits and labor unions.
Rep. Michael Bishop, chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Law and Ethics, plans to block the bill.
"Right now, it's a step too far. It punishes good legislators and it will probably push away good talent who want to become legislators," Bishop said.
According to Diane Renzulli, CPI's director of state projects, the Michigan legislature sees similar bills nearly every year. "It's the same old stuff, basically," she said.
Bishop says he will sponsor an ethics act in the fall that would require legislators to report conflicts of interest as they arise.
Idaho actually weakened its ethics laws this year. It requires no financial disclosures by lawmakers, but it does require lobbyists to report gifts to legislators worth more than $50 along with the recipients' names.
During the 1999 session, Idaho lawmakers eliminated a clause in the law that had required lobbyists to file with the secretary of state copies of any statements, arguments or briefs they gave legislators.
Utah did not address its disclosure laws this year, but legislators wrote ethics standards for lobbyists and developed a formal complaint process. The Speaker of the House or the Senate president will determine punishments for lobbyists who violate the standards and will decide whether to make complaints public.
Utah lawmakers also closed a loophole in an eight-year-old law that had allowed candidates to provide either the name of a campaign contributor or the lobbyist working on behalf of that contributor. The law now requires candidates to name their contributors, so lobbyists cannot be used to cover up the original source of a donation.
A search of Vermont's Legislative Bill Tracking System finds no ethics or conflict-of-interest bills introduced during the 1999 session. Lawmakers there did introduce bills in the House and Senate that would bar legislators from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office. When the session ended in May, neither bill had progressed out of committee.
William Doyle, Chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, says, in his 30 years as a lawmaker in Vermont, he has never seen the need for disclosure rules. He says he knows of no colleague whose vote was ever been influenced by an outside job or investment.
"It's not a big deal in Vermont. Most people think it's not a major problem," he said.
In its review of the disclosure laws in all 50 states, CPI said legislative ethics rules in some states were excellent models. Washington received a score of 98, the best in the nation, because its laws require disclosure of legislators' employment relationships, officer/director positions, investments, property holdings and clients.
But in addition to Utah, Michigan, Idaho and Vermont, CPI failed another 20 states', writing in its report that "lawmakers have written disclosure laws that are designed to keep the public and the press in the dark about their personal financial activities and interests."
CPI's Diane Renzulli said some lawmakers have difficulty differentiating between what's good for the public and what's good for themselves.
"The laws are set up so the public trust can be violated without the law being violated," she said.
Recognizing the need for state legislatures to improve their ethical images, the National Conference of State Legislatures, which represents lawmakers and their staffs, has partially funded a new organization dedicated to raising standards.
Known as the Center for Advocacy and Governmental Ethics, the organization is headed by Peggy Kerns, a former Colorado representative and U.S. education department official.
The center will aim to help lawmakers, their staffs, lobbyists and journalists understand the role ethics play in government, and to reach out to disillusioned citizens. It will not propose ethics legislation or serve as a watchdog to expose unethical behavior, Kerns said.
"I think good people are elected to government," she said. "I think they're very capable of policing themselves."