It was a cold January day, and all 105 members of the Idaho state legislature had gathered together in the red theater-style seats of the state Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium for a mandatory four-hour training session on ethics. Among the speakers: a former Missouri state senator who landed in federal prison at age 35 after a campaign finance violation. The ex-con urged the quiet lawmakers, who seemed a bit stunned by his tale, to learn the law and stick to it closely. Whether the audience took the message to heart is an open question.
“There’s not a huge problem in Idaho — I don’t think there is,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, a Republican. “I know most of you well, I know your hearts. But there are things we can do to improve.”
As Bedke suggested, there’s no deep history of corruption in this largely rural state of just 1.6 million residents, where citizen-lawmakers write legislation for three months a year before returning to their farms, classrooms or offices. That’s led many Idaho officials to bristle at the idea that anything needs to change. But a series of recent scandals has begun to challenge that view.
Idaho lacks financial disclosure laws, has no state ethics commission and no “cooling off” period preventing public officials from signing up as lobbyists as soon as they leave office. There are few ethics laws and no one to effectively enforce the ones that do exist. In fact, the annual training amounted to perhaps the steepest ethics requirement the lawmakers face.
All that has contributed to the Gem State earning a score of just 62, or a D-, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
The score hardly budged from a similar assessment published in 2012. Idaho’s ranking moved up to a tie for 26th place — it came in 41st three years ago — but only because other states’ scores declined. The new score is not directly comparable to that from 2012, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Is there corruption in Idaho’s state government? “It would be hard to tell, because we don’t have financial disclosure,” said Cynthia Sewell, a reporter at the Idaho Statesman in Boise. “The only way we find out is if something bubbles to the surface.”
Few laws, little enforcement
For years, Idaho lawmakers have resisted calls to enact some of the central components of ethics regimes in other states, including financial disclosure laws that allow citizens to judge for themselves when an official has a conflict of interest or restrictions on officials moving directly into private-sector work after leaving government. But the topic is beginning to resonate.
In 2014, a House member apologized and requested an ethics inquiry after she cast a vote against a bill — aimed at eliminating a perk protecting lawmakers from creditors seeking wage garnishments — but failed to disclose that the bill would have directly hurt her financially had it passed.
At the same time, several high-profile lawmakers and officials have gone directly from public office to lobbying in recent years. The state’s current lobbying corps includes the governor’s former chief of staff, his former budget director, the former deputy director at the Department of Insurance (who lobbies for a major health insurer) and several high-profile former legislators.
Sometimes, officials don’t even wait to leave office. In January, the Idaho Statesman reported that the executive director of the state Racing Commission, Frank Lamb, had been working in Wyoming as a paid lobbyist for a gaming company at the same time that he oversaw the legalization in Idaho of a type of slot machine-like game that the company operates. Lamb retired abruptly once the story surfaced, and the legislature voted to repeal authorization for the gambling machines, though that move is now tied up in court.
But Lamb seems to have avoided greater scrutiny. He never disclosed a conflict, as state law requires, and it’s unclear whether the state’s conflict of interest law would have allowed him to carry on with both roles had he revealed his lobbying activity. No state agency had authority to investigate and the local county prosecutor declined to file charges.
Idaho has no ethics commission, and though an array of agencies address ethics in different branches of government, gaps remain. If an investigative reporter hadn’t dug up Lamb’s activities in Wyoming, the public may never have learned about the conflict.
“Is there corruption?” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, a Democrat. “I don’t know.”
Sunlight shining in
Despite Idaho’s low rankings in the State Integrity Investigation, a bright spot shone on one of state government’s central functions: deciding how to spend taxpayers’ money. Idaho’s budget process ranked second among the states and earned an A grade for being transparent and accessible. Visitors can watch proceedings of the joint budget committee, which meets daily in the ornate former Supreme Court chamber during the legislative session. The meetings also are streamed live online. All budget documents are easily accessible online. And in four of the last five years, the joint committee also has chosen to hold public hearings to ask Idahoans for their input on the budget, with thousands attending.
Among items raised by citizens at the public hearings that made their way into the state budget: funding for Idaho’s suicide prevention hotline, which for years had been hobbled by inadequate resources. The money was approved, and the hotline is credited with likely saving 100 lives in the past three years.
That openness is not unique to the budget process. All proceedings of the Idaho Legislature are streamed online, through a partnership between the Legislature and Idaho Public Television. The same service also streams Supreme Court proceedings and major executive-branch meetings. And the Legislature’s website offers easy access to all bills, actions and votes. Campaign finance information is freely and quickly available online through the secretary of state’s office.
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, a Republican, said technology has made Idaho’s government more accessible to citizens. “It’s so much better than it was a couple of decades ago,” he said.