Bill-job conflict: It’s routine in Olympia

Citizen-legislators often are asked to vote on bills influencing an industry that they work in

jimmy.lovaas@thenewstribune.comMay 19, 2013 

Rep. Steve Kirby says he kept busy during the Legislature’s brief hiatus this month by training for his new job at a Tacoma-area credit union.

It’s a field that intersects with his work at the Capitol. As the chairman of the House Business and Financial Services Committee, Kirby has the power to decide the fate of finance-industry bills — including those that affect his new employer, Harborstone.

Conflict of interest? Not in Washington, where lawmakers routinely work in the same fields they regulate, with the blessing of state ethics rules.

Kirby, D-Tacoma, said his new position as a business sales and service specialist pays less than $50,000 a year and does not involve assisting with the credit union’s policy-making or lobbying.

He said he accepted the position at Harborstone in November shortly after leaving the furniture store where he worked for several years.

“But I know a lot about the world of finance,” Kirby said. “I was a finance director for an order of Catholic nuns before I came to the Legislature. I’ve been around finance for decades.”

Mike O’Connell, counsel for the state Legislative Ethics Board, said lawmakers are outright barred from lobbying jobs, but in most other cases they don’t have to even notify the board about their outside employment. Still, most legislators do as Kirby did and reach out to ethics advisers to avoid any appearance of wrongdoing.

Kirby is not alone in his ability to wield influence over legislation that could help or hurt his bosses.

Puyallup Democrat Dawn Morrell, a critical care nurse at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, leads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. Another nurse, Eileen Cody of Seattle and Group Health, is the Democratic chairwoman of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

Rep. Richard DeBolt, a Chehalis Republican and the House Republican leader before stepping aside last month for health reasons, is the director of external relations for TransAlta. The company has been seeking assistance at the Legislature for its coal plant.

And Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, is chairman of the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee. Outside the Legislature, he is the secretary-treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council, AFL/CIO.

Sells, who has worked for the labor council since before he joined the Legislature, said that he takes great care to ensure he is representing business interests fairly. During the legislative session, he has a weekly meeting with members of the business community and a separate weekly meeting with labor interest groups, he said.

“I make sure we do have a balance of pro and con during our hearings, and the business community will tell you that,” said Sells, whose committee considers topics such as wage laws, unemployment compensation and workplace safety standards.

The Center for Public Integrity reported earlier this year that conflicts of interest are routine in statehouses across the country.

One of the main reasons: Nearly 80 percent of state lawmaking bodies in the U.S. are considered part-time legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers are usually paid accordingly, prompting many to keep other jobs.

As a result, “insurance agents vote on insurance bills, doctors vote on health care bills and school administrators vote on education funding bills,” the Center for Public Integrity reported.

In Washington, rank-and-file members of the Legislature make $42,106 a year plus $90 per diems for every day they are in session in Olympia.

That’s a far cry from states such as New Mexico, where legislators get a daily stipend but no salary. Some members of the Washington Legislature are wealthy — or frugal — enough to get by on their legislative salary, but for many, outside employment is a necessity.

“We kind of throw them in a situation where they have to make a living,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University.

Donovan said the antidote to problems caused by lawmakers’ second jobs is disclosure — and Washington is better than some states in that regard.

The Center for Public Integrity gave the state a B-minus last year for its structures to encourage transparency and discourage corruption, judging Washington third-best in the nation for the measures it takes to keep elected officials accountable.

The state’s Ethics in Public Service Act requires lawmakers to file paperwork with the ethics board if they, or their spouse or registered domestic partner, have a contract, grant, or employment relationship with a state agency. Lawmakers also are required to file a personal affairs financial statement with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission on which they must report all household sources of income, real estate, assets, and creditors.

“It’s at least transparent,” Donovan said. “(Lawmakers) can’t hide it very easily if they’re involved in something corrupt.”

In addition to ethics rules, the state constitution prohibits a legislator from voting on any legislation in which he has “a private interest” — defined as a benefit unique to him, as opposed to a class of people. A teacher-lawmaker can vote on a state budget that gives all teachers raises, for example.

Kirby said the alternative to the current system would be, for example, “to have people who know nothing about the health care industry working on the health care committee or people who know nothing about the education system working on education bills.”

“The only solution would be to make all of us full-time legislators,” Kirby said. “And I would bet the public would not support that. It would be like Congress on a smaller scale.”

Sells said that all of the different jobs held by legislators help balance each other out — though over time, he said he thinks there have been more lawyers, doctors and business owners elected to the Legislature than people from the labor community.

“It’s a citizen Legislature,” Sells said. “Everyone brings a different perspective.”

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