Afflicting the conflicted in government
I’ve had a lot of time on my hands this week to think about several things (I’ll explain why in a moment). One of those things is the subject of conflicts of interest and our West Virginia Legislature.
I know, I’m a nerd. This is an issue that pops up from time to time, usually pushed along by some crusading journalist and praised by those who don’t understand exactly how our part-time citizen Legislature works.
The Legislature has live streamed audio of meetings and floor sessions for at least a decade if not longer, but with the advent of video live streaming in 2014, the public has never had better access to the Legislature and what lawmakers do.
If you’ve ever watched or listened to a floor session in the House of Delegates, you might hear a delegate stand up and request a Rule 49. It’s one of many rules that govern how delegates act during the legislative session. It’s long and wordy, but basically Rule 49 requires any delegate with a personal or financial interest regarding any piece of legislation to let the House Speaker know and request to be excused from voting.
The House Speaker (there is a similar rule in the Senate) has two choices. If the speaker determines that the delegate has a direct personal or financial interest, he can excuse the delegate from voting. If the speaker determines the delegate is a member of a class of five people or more, the delegate would still be required to vote on the bill.
It’s rare when a lawmaker is excused from voting. The most recent example I can think of was a few years ago when a delegate was excused from voting on a bill dealing with a specific kind of insurance. The former delegate ran a company that was the only company in the state that offered this particular kind of insurance. He would have been directly affected by the bill, so he was excused from voting.
However, most are required to vote, which drives some up the wall. Even if there are five or more people who could be impacted by a vote, the one lawmaker shouldn’t be allowed to vote some say.
As I said above, we have a part-time citizen Legislature. Unless called into special session (and not counting interim meetings), the Legislature meets once a year for 60 days. Outside some base compensation ($20,000 per year) and travel reimbursements (called per diem), lawmakers are people who have regular jobs.
I don’t bring that up so you can feel sorry for them. I bring that up only to point out that because they work for a living, they are bound to bump into conflicts of interest. The only way around this is to change the state Constitution and make the Legislature a full-time job with better pay. Even then, until you also change the State Ethics Act to require elected officials to put companies in a blind trust you’ll still run into issues.
The purpose of the Rule 49 is for the lawmaker to announce publicly their perceived conflict of interest. It’s a level of accountability for the public. It is a protection mechanism. I worry more about lawmakers who don’t request a Rule 49.
The same people who bemoan the Rule 49 process are some of the same people who recently got mad at the removal of Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, from the House Education Committee. Dean is a school administrator in Mingo County who fought against parts of what became House Bill 206, the second education omnibus bill (notice how quiet it has been since that bill passed?).
During Democratic and Republican control of the Legislature, you’ve had lawyers on the judiciary committees, educators on the education committees, union members on the labor committees, health professionals on the health committees, on and on. Many of these people even chair these committees. Some even get donations from the groups who have issues before these committees.
It all begs the question: why isn’t all of this a conflict of interest?
It may or may not be, but that’s why there are checks and balances: whatever bills come out of those committees might have to go to other committees, but then go to the full House, where the non-doctors-lawyers-educators-etc. can ask questions and vote the bills up or down.
That’s not counting the fact that those bills then have to go through the same process again in the next chamber, plus get the approval of the governor, plus possibly be reviewed by the courts. Of course, there are the media that can scrutinize, fairly and sometimes unfairly, these conflicts.
There is also another important part of this process: you. If you think it’s a conflict for someone who works for a natural gas company to vote on natural gas bills, then hold them accountable. Vote them out. Vote for someone who you think is more representative of your county or district.
But if you make everyone who has a conflict, no matter how insignificant, sit down and not vote, you’re going to have a Legislature that does little.
If you didn’t see my byline in your newspapers much this week, that’s because I was in the hospital from Aug. 11 to Aug. 14 with a medical issue. I’m feeling much better now though and am ready to get back to work keeping you informed about statehouse politics. For those who knew, thanks for reaching out. And a special thanks to all my editors who kept checking on me. I work for some of the best.
(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)