State Politics

Making officials disclose their income puts ‘a target on our back,’ lawmaker says

The Idaho Statehouse in Boise.
The Idaho Statehouse in Boise. Idaho Statesman file

Idaho is one of just two states that do not require elected officials to reveal any information about their finances, a tool that can help indicate conflicts of interest with pending bills and ordinances.

And that is OK with the House State Affairs Committee, which on Wednesday shot down its own chairman’s proposal requiring that elected officials annually disclose their financial interests.

The legislation followed a summer of discussions about campaign finance issues by an interim committee of lawmakers. That group unanimously recommended Wednesday’s bill, said State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona.

Loertscher said he brought forth the bill not out of desire, but necessity.

“This is not a heartburn issue to me. This is not one of those things that I think is absolutely essential that we do,” he said. “But let me say this: Financial disclosure of elected officials is in your future because this will happen at some point.”

He said if lawmakers do not do something soon, Idaho residents will put some sort of disclosure requirement in place through a ballot initiative.

“No one in this place has resisted this more than I,” Loertscher said. “The only purpose of this (legislation) is to make sure we do this in the least intrusive way possible. Because, in our future if an initiative comes along, who in the Legislature is going to have the nerve, if you will, to vote against the initiative of the people when they have decided that they want to know this information? You will not have nerve enough to vote against that and to repeal it.”

Under his proposal, all state, county and city elected officials each year would have to file a statement declaring their occupation, and any sources of income of more than $5,000. They also would have to report any ownership interest of $5,000 or more they have in any other entities, and the names and employers of any spouse or other adult household members.

The requirements would also apply to candidates for office.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said campaign finance needs to be addressed when it comes to PACs and donations.

“But to focus on legislators’ sources of income and spousal sources of income is to put a target on our back to many groups and individuals nationwide that would work to silence various ideologies, various voices by attacking the economics,” Barbieri said. “We have seen that on a national scale with (Fox News’ Bill) O’Reilly and (Sean) Hannity. … This information is used as a sword to attack.”

“I feel like we are on the edge of a George Orwell book, with thought police here, when we start asking people to divulge what they believe may at some point down the road become a conflict of interest,” said Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett. If any of her constituents want information, she said, “They can ask.”

Barbieri, who motioned to send back the bill, said he “does not agree that the Idaho public thinks this body is full of dishonest individuals. I just don’t buy that. I don’t think that this bill needs to see the light of day. Let’s deal with the initiative when it comes.”

Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, and also running this year for governor, said she wanted more discussion on the issue, especially since the interim committee examined it. She moved unsuccessfully to introduce the bill.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, also said he would like a public hearing on the proposal. But he said Loertscher’s draft “needs to be cleaned up,” specifically mentioning whether unrelated household members should disclose and needed clarification on declaring income sources.

The committee, in a split vote, agreed to send the bill back to Loertscher for more work.

The chairman spoke after the vote with The Spokesman-Review: “What am I going to do? I’m not going to get it out of here. … This is State Affairs. I don’t ever presume to try to outguess this committee.”

Election-year issue

Financial disclosures have become a talking point in this year’s governor’s race, particularly on the Republican side.

So far, all three major GOP candidates have disclosed details about their financial assets.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador has been required to disclose his financial interests since he was first elected to Congress in 2010. Members of Congress are required to report all assets and liabilities in a range of dollar amounts.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist voluntarily disclosed their financial assets in the fall, although Little went a step further than Ahlquist and used the same federal disclosure requirements required of Labrador. Ahlquist only provided his income sources, property holdings and investment valued at $5,000 or more.

“Brad Little supports transparency in government and is the only candidate for governor who has voluntarily disclosed his personal finances in detail,” said his campaign manager, Zach Hauge.

But, in 2007, Little was one of seven Republican state senators to vote down a proposal that would have created a financial disclosure requirement for all statewide elected officials in Idaho, according to minutes from the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill had been backed by Democratic lawmakers, who normally face opposition from the dominant GOP lawmakers in the Idaho Statehouse.

When asked in October why Little opted to disclose now, Hauge said it was because the 2007 legislation had been “brought by Democrat leadership.” Hauge added that Little supported last year’s interim committee.

Ahlquist’s campaign manager, David Johnston, said, “Today’s failure by the House State Affairs Committee highlights yet again politics as usual and the need to elect a political outsider like Tommy Ahlquist as governor. Tommy has been championing the need for financial disclosure in Idaho and was the first in Idaho to voluntarily disclose his financial assets.”

But, if some lawmakers have no desire to require financial disclosures, how will Ahlquist accomplish it?

“It comes down to leadership, building public support and working with the Legislature long before the session,” Johnston said. “Tommy has made this a part of his agenda, so, when elected, it will be a mandate and something he will push for.”

Labrador, too, is making transparency and ethics a part of his campaign platform.

“The real issue here is addressing conflicts of interest in a meaningful way. As governor, Raúl Labrador will restore confidence in Idaho’s political system with his conservative plan to eliminate cronyism, bribery and corruption which will be unveiled soon,” said China Veldhouse Gum, his campaign manager.

The Statesman reached out to Jordan and her Democratic challenger, A.J. Balukoff, but did not receive further comment.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

The Associated Press contributed.