Bring back term limits. End pension loopholes. Governor hopefuls take on ethics reform

Top Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in the 2018 primaries. Clockwise from upper left: Tommy Ahlquist, Raul Labrador, Brad Little, A.J. Balukoff, Paulette Jordan.
Top Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in the 2018 primaries. Clockwise from upper left: Tommy Ahlquist, Raul Labrador, Brad Little, A.J. Balukoff, Paulette Jordan.

Idaho tends to get low outside marks when it comes to fighting corruption.

During Gov. Butch Otter’s three terms, the state has been rocked by scandals ranging from botched contracts to retaliation against employees who attempt to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. In 2012 and 2015 it received near-failing grades in a watchdog group’s state-by-state review of ethics, transparency, oversight and accountability in government.

Democrats, the state’s minority party, have clamored unsuccessfully for years for ethics reform. Now, ahead of the 2018 elections, the topic is unexpectedly trending on the GOP side.

This is Otter’s last year in office. The Statesman sent several ethics reform questions to five leading candidates to replace him: Republicans Tommy Ahlquist, U.S. Rep Raul Labrador and Lt. Gov. Brad Little, and Democrats A.J. Balukoff and state Rep. Paulette Jordan.

Four of the five candidates are proposing some of the boldest ethics reforms in decades.

The fifth candidate, Little, supports stronger ethics, but takes a different approach on how to achieve it.

(Jordan’s campaign initially said they were too busy to respond before this report first published online Tuesday. On Wednesday, Jordan announced she would resign from the Legislature to focus on running for governor. Later that day, the Statesman sent her the ethics questions once more and she replied.)

Among the candidates, four topics bubbled to the surface: term limits, financial disclosures, and closing lobbying and pension loopholes.

Idaho citizens and businesses who interact with Idaho state government expect to know the rules, and that they are fair and transparent. We must work to ensure that is always the case.

Brad Little, Republican

Set an expiration date

When it comes to term limits, Idaho has the distinction of being the only state legislature to overturn the will of the people. Idaho voters approved term limit laws in the mid-’90s; the Legislature repealed them in 2002.

Ahlquist, who has never held public office; Labrador, who is in his 12th year as a politician; and Jordan, who was elected to the Idaho House in 2014, say they support term limits.

Ahlquist wants to limit statewide officeholders — jobs like governor, treasurer and public schools chief — to two four-year terms. So does Jordan: “The absence of term limit laws in our state has blocked the influx of new voices and fresh ideas, and it has contributed to a stagnant system of single-party rule and political cronyism,” she said.

Labrador has served four years in the Idaho House, eight in Congress and has said he would serve only two terms as governor. He’s proposing a constitutional amendment limiting state lawmakers and statewide elected officials like the governor to 12 consecutive years in office.

“Term limits allow fresh ideas and innovations to rise to the surface, and can help stop corruption and cronyism from taking root,” Labrador said. “Conversely, concentrating power into the hands of people who have been in office for too long can lead to cronyism and, at minimum, a belief that political favoritism is behind policy decisions.”

Little, who served seven years in the state Senate before becoming lieutenant governor in 2009, and Balukoff, a Boise School Board member who was first elected in 1997, both say we already have a term-limits system — voters.

“I think the best term limits are frequent elections, with maximum participation,” said Little, who as a state senator voted in 2002 to overturn term limits.

It’s past time for real state government reform that includes both term limits and ethics reforms.

Tommy Ahlquist, Republican

Tell me what I don’t know

Idaho is just one of two states that do not require lawmakers to disclose anything about their personal finances. (The other is Michigan.) The disclosures typically include information about an official’s primary employment, assets and property, and business associations.

The House State Affairs Committee last month voted down the latest effort to change Idaho’s law, a financial disclosure bill unanimously recommended by a bipartisan group of legislators. The committee included Jordan, who voted in support of the bill; she told the Statesman that disclosing provides “an accountability measure against corruption.”

That wasn’t the first time lawmakers pondered such a mandate. The Senate in 2009 unanimously passed a financial disclosure bill, but the House never took it up.

All five candidates approached by the Statesman said they support financial disclosure. Little and Ahlquist have voluntarily disclosed their financial interests. Labrador is required to do so under federal rules, and Balukoff and Jordan plan to release theirs soon.

“Citizens have a right to know who their elected and appointed officials are doing business with, where they are receiving income, who they owe money to and how much, and whether they are involved in lawsuits,” said Balukoff.

Little, though, said he does not think we need a new law to do it.

“You lead by example,” he said. “That is why I have disclosed in this race, using the congressional disclosure model, and have pledged to disclose my financial interests while governor.”

Get a watchdog

Former Lewiston Rep. John Rusche, once a top Democrat in the Legislature, endured years of having Republicans scoff at his proposal to create an independent office of inspector general to investigate complaints of government waste and abuse.

Without an independent oversight board or other entity, state employees have nowhere else to go but to the courts.

“If there is malfeasance, fraud or even if they identify significant correctable errors, where can they go to get a fair hearing? To their boss? To the governor’s office?” Rusche told the Statesman in 2015. “It should not require a lawsuit to handle these situations.”

He attributed his bills’ failures to party prickliness, saying when a Democrat introduces ethics-related legislation, “it’s viewed as an attack on the governor, the Republican Party, the Republican Legislature.”

Balukoff wants to continue carrying his party’s torch: “I’m not sure what the politicians calling the shots are so afraid of. Idahoans entrust their elected leaders with billions of dollars every year. They have earned the right to have an independent inspector general investigate fraud and waste in our state government and hold people accountable for not using our tax dollars wisely.”

Jordan agrees: “It shouldn’t require a massive scandal to uncover an ethics violation — we should always be vigilant about misconduct.”

One of the GOP candidates, Labrador, also wants to hire a government watchdog.

“Investigating waste and corruption is an important function of government, and it is important that the state government ensure the investigations are being conducted independently of political considerations,” Labrador said.

The other two Republican candidates are taking a pass. Both Ahlquist and Little said the state already has the tools to tackle this issue: the governor’s office (Ahlquist) or the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations and the state’s attorney general (Little).

“Fighting wasteful government spending, fraud and abuse is something I believe the governor needs to lead on,” Ahlquist said.

Idahoans are so frustrated with politicians who make empty promises, cut back-room deals, and pick winners and losers.

Raul Labrador, Republican

Slow the revolving door

Spend years in a government position. Learn the ins and outs and shortcuts. Then, leave public service, become a lobbyist, and use that experience and insider knowledge to gain sway with the state — and earn a bigger paycheck.

To curb this “revolving door” practice, many states have a “cooling-off period,” requiring elected officials and public servants to wait 12 or 24 months before taking a lobbying job.

Idaho has no such law. Currently two of Otter’s former chiefs of staff and his former budget director are lobbyists.

Ahlquist, Balukoff and Jordan support creating a cooling-off period.

“Public officials should not be able to use their elected or appointed positions to leverage big payouts in the private sector,” said Ahlquist.

Little does not support such a proposal.

“Rather than create more laws, my preference is to strengthen efforts for greater transparency,” Little said. “The public should be able to find out more about these matters.”

Labrador did not respond to this question.

It’s not a lifetime, and it’s not going to derail anyone’s career.

Paulette Jordan, Democrat

Block that spike

Idaho legislators are considered part time and are paid about $16,000 a year. A long-term legislator will receive a state pension of roughly $500 a month. But under a special perk in the state pension program, legislators are able to augment their pensions if they take a higher-paying government job for 42 months. The state retirement system uses those months, not their part-time service, to calculate the size of the pension.

Ahquist, Balukoff, Jordan, Labrador and Little all support closing this loophole.

Ending pension-spiking “puts the interests of Idaho taxpayers ahead of those of Boise politicians and is the fiscally and ethically responsible thing to do,” said Ahlquist.

We should not be hiring people to high-paying positions in state government when their only goal is to bump up their pension payment.

A.J. Balukoff, Democrat

Does Idaho need an overhaul, or a tune-up?

Little’s less heavy-handed approach stands out among the four. He said if voters elect good people who hold themselves to a higher standard, and their constituents hold them accountable at the ballot box, there is no need to legislate ethics.

He does want to tweak a few things to improve state government accountability and transparency. He said he can accomplish this by building consensus among lawmakers. “I have the relationships within the Idaho Legislature and the track record of bringing people together,” he said.

The other four also believe they can create that consensus, and each spoke optimistically of their leadership abilities. But they largely did not go into detail on how they’d change recalcitrant lawmakers’ minds.

“I have a record of bipartisanship in my legislative career, and as the only Democrat elected in conservative Northern Idaho, I know how to work with Republicans,” Jordan said.

“For years Idaho has been run without concrete plans for the future — and it’s time for leadership and vision that brings a fresh approach and new ideas,” said Ahlquist.

Neither Otter nor the Legislature has seriously tried to remedy Idaho’s growing ethics deficit. As the state has paid millions to defend and settle complaints, lawmakers have spent hundreds of hours studying state contracting, public records and campaign finance laws — only to see scant successful legislation.

But some lawmakers may not be as hard to convince as their records suggest.

Sen. Patti Ann Lodge, R-Huston, co-chaired last year’s campaign finance interim committee. She said she is disappointed her committee’s financial disclosure bill didn’t even get printed. But she also believes the vote that blocked it led to “assumptions” that don’t accurately reflect the broader Legislature.

“I don’t like to equate everybody with not wanting ethics reform,” she said. “I think we all want to do a good job. We want to do what is right. For the most part, here in Idaho, I think the great majority of legislators are here to try to do a good job.”

And what of the candidates’ ideas? Lodge is similarly tempered there. She attributed some of the candidates’ hue and cry for ethics reform to “politicking” and “jockeying for position.”

“A lot of things that have been said I think are off-the-cuff and trying to rally up the votes,” she said, “and there really hasn’t been that much research to find out if these things really work or not.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell