The following blog post is one of several that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Lia Ernst | NEFAC, ACLU of Vermont
Sunshine Week largely — and rightly — focuses on access to public records through freedom of information requests. But the public also has a right to know if their elected officials are serving their constituents’ interests or their own financial interests. Unfortunately, Vermonters are not currently afforded this right.
The Center for Public Integrity gave Vermont a grade of D+ for public access to information in 2012. Not great, right? But we fell all the way to an F by 2015. Vermont is not alone among public records ne’er-do-wells; that F puts us at 12th in the nation. That’s 12th from the top. Vermont is just one of the 44 states that flunked this test.
Where Vermont really stands apart from the crowd is in executive and legislative oversight, for which we ranked 48th and 49th in the nation, respectively, and ethics enforcement, for which we came in dead last. Almost alone among the states, Vermont has stubbornly refused to enact laws requiring financial disclosures from candidates and elected officials that would help root out conflicts of interest. It also has refused to establish an independent ethics commission tasked with investigative and enforcement functions.
That may change this year . . . but only a little. The Vermont Senate has passed a bill, S.8, that would, among other things, mandate certain financial disclosures for executive officers and candidates for state or legislative office, require the creation of a state code of ethics, and create a state ethics commission. It also includes restrictions on “pay to play” transactions and the legislator-to-lobbyist revolving door.
This all sounds well and good, but the devil, as always, is in the details.
The financial disclosure provisions are significantly weaker than in many states: sources of income need only be disclosed if they account for $10,000 or more, and the amounts earned from each source need not be reported. Most states’ triggering threshold is far lower, typically around $1,000, and many states require reporting the amounts of income or, more commonly, selecting the range into which income from each source falls. Under this bill, Vermonters would have no way of knowing that their legislators may be casting votes in which they have a financial interest when that interest is “only” worth $9,999. That’s a lot of money to most of us — enough to make people reasonably question whether undisclosed conflicts are corrupting the legislative process.
The contemplated ethics commission is also a fairly toothless innovation: it accepts complaints and refers them along to other agencies; it issues confidential advisory ethics opinions; it provides ethics training; and it generates annual reports summarizing the complaints it received and the advisory opinions it issued. It has no enforcement authority, subpoena power, or staff, save for a part-time executive director poached from another agency.
Good government advocates — such as Vermont’s Secretary of State, Jim Condos, who has long advocated for open and accountable government, and the Vermont League of Women Voters — have called for passage of a far more robust bill. But those calls were not heeded in the Senate, and prospects are dimmer still in the House.
Many legislators have resisted any change at all to the status quo, believing that such formalities are not required in “squeaky clean” Vermont. Their constituents appear to disagree. A recent poll found that only 8 percent of Vermonters completely trust that the state legislature serves their interests. Twenty-nine percent “trust very little” or “do not trust at all.” Sixty percent “somewhat trust” that the legislature serves their interests.
If S.8 becomes law, time tell whether it will do much to enhance government transparency and improve public trust. Given the bill’s weaknesses, one hopes that the legislature will see this as a first step rather than a job well done.
Lia Ernst is a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and an attorney at the ACLU of Vermont.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.