The Legislature's big scrounge for money is causing a consolidation frenzy at the Capitol this year. The latest: a proposal to merge the state’s ethics and campaign finance regulators.
Democratic Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said he isn’t trying to water down or weaken the Executive Ethics Board, which looks into complaints about state workers and elected officials’ misuse of state resources and conflicts of interest.
That board’s handful of staff members and nearly $1 million two-year budget can be better deployed inside the Public Disclosure Commission, which already investigates campaign-finance irregularities, Hudgins said.
“We’re just trying to save money,” he said. “These days, we’re looking to save anything we can.”
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Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna’s office questions the move – which follows a proposal last year by House Democrats to cut the board’s funding entirely. The ethics board technically is a subunit of the AG’s office.
House Bill 2028 is scheduled fort a House hearing at 8 this morning in the House State Government Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat. Hunt co-sponsored Hudgins’ bill and has it scheduled for a quick committee vote.
Hunt questions the need for the Executive Ethics Board, saying it costs $500,000 a year and put out just a few reports last year.
The board was created in the 1994, along with the Legislative Ethics Board. They were a response to a multimillion-dollar scandal in which the Legislature was found by The Olympian to be using state-paid workers to raise money and aid campaigns while on the public’s dime.
Hudgins, who chairs the House General Government Appropriations and Oversight Committee, said there also is interest in reducing costs of the Legislative Ethics Board – which has just one paid staffer who sometimes hires outside investigators. Hudgins said lawmakers need and want that board’s accountability but also want to reduce costs.
Melanie de Leon, executive director of the Executive Ethics Board, defended her agency’s work and said the largest sanction it levied was a $30,000 fine, much of it suspended, against a Shoreline Community College president.
Last year, the board imposed sanctions in 15 cases including a $17,000 fine for a former Public Disclosure Commission employee who took 98 items he’d purchased for the agency. The worker later returned one-quarter of the items but was convicted of theft and sentenced to jail.
De Leon said ethics complaints are increasing, and so are requests for advice from agencies and workers who need help with the intricacies of ethics laws.
The board, which is appointed by the governor and includes state employees, holds formal meetings every other month. The agency’s staff, which includes one investigator, does its own investigations.
The consolidation would let the PDC’s existing five-member citizen board handle the ethics complaints. Hudgins said he hasn’t decided whether the Executive Ethics Board investigator should be transferred to the PDC or if commission staffers should be asked to become expert in ethics law.
Other consolidation measures this year include Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to merge certain personnel, information services and administrative functions into a new Department of Enterprise Services. She also wants to merge Fish and Wildlife, parks and the Conservation Commission into a single agency and wants to merge education institutions from preschool to K-12 and higher education into one new Department of Education.
And she has proposed moving the Sentencing Guidelines Commission and Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board into the Department of Corrections. But Hudgins is looking at putting the guidelines commission under the Supreme Court’s purview.
Other lawmakers want to merge state history museums, the Arts Commission, and State Library into a single heritage and arts agency.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688