Seeking essential transparency in state government

Perspective

By Bruce Lisman

 

Transparency is the essential ingredient in transforming state government into an organization capable of solving Vermont’s most pressing challenges. It’s also the most valuable tool in holding government accountable to the very people who government serves and who actually elect the government. Imagine it: government transparency — the ability to measure how well government is led and managed, not merely administered.

Campaign for Vermont made these points in our paper “Achieving Accountability: Transforming State Government into a Modern, Transparent 21st Century System.” Now it’s time to take action — and you should join the effort.

Good ideas alone never compel politicians and special interests groups to embrace real transformation, especially when the result will be more accountability. That’s why Campaign For Vermont and the nearly 1,000 Vermonters who have become partners will advocate for real reforms this legislative session.

As part of our transparency proposal, we also advocated for developing ethics rules for elected officials. Ours is one of the few states with no ethics laws, financial disclosure requirements for those running for statewide office, required conflict of interest disclosure, or an ethics panel that would advise on, and enforce, these matters. That’s why the Better Government Association ranked Vermont 43rd in government integrity laws, while The State Integrity Investigation gave Vermont a D+ for corruption risk. That may also be one reason Vermont has among the highest rates of embezzlement in the nation.

To stymie reforms, some say ours is a small state; we all know each other; there have been few examples of corruption at the state level; or that ethics regulations place a burden on legislators or statewide officials.

It is true that most Vermonters don’t break laws, but we still have a wide array of regulatory frameworks that offer protection from the few that do. In addition, corruption isn’t always a matter of stealing money or selling access or influence – but it certainly can be. Ethics guidelines would tell us how conflicts of interest should be treated in certain circumstances, and mandatory disclosures would help us highlight potential pitfalls. Certainly, any new burden placed on politicians for transparency is far less significant than the regulatory burden imposed by state government in a wide range of issues – generally with good reason.

That’s why we believe Vermont ought to establish standards of conduct that are applied to public office, and these policies must be enforceable through an independent, non-partisan and quasi-judicial system – an Ethics Commission – that is itself a model of transparency and accountability.

Campaign For Vermont will be releasing a detailed ethics proposal. Be prepared for political insiders to say they support it but take no meaningful action, or attempt to explain away ethics laws and disclosures as unnecessary.

Vermont is a proud, forward-thinking state that likes to lead. We cannot be content to be among the last in transparency, accountability and ethics.

Bruce Lisman is a resident of Shelburne and the founder of Campaign For Vermont. More at www.campaignforvermont.org.