Voters, legislators look to Kentucky for ethics reform ideas

By John Schaaf, Executive Director, Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission

John Schaaf

John Schaaf

On November 8, voters from across the political spectrum in several states came together to approve ethics and political reform initiatives that will apply to elected officials and candidates at the state and local level.

On Election Day, at least 11 ethics and campaign finance reform measures were successful at the ballot box around the nation, and several of those create ethics laws similar to those already on the books in Kentucky.

Because Kentucky’s Code of Legislative Ethics is comprehensive and has proven to be effective, it’s been relied on as a model for Congress, states, and local governments seeking to strengthen ethics laws.

In South Dakota, voters approved new ethics laws that were placed on the ballot as a result of a petition process. Similar to Kentucky’s law, the initiative creates an independent ethics commission to enforce ethics laws, and includes a two-year prohibition on lobbying for former legislators and other state officials. It also places limitations on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators and other state officials.

In another statewide initiative, Rhode Island voters, by a 78% to 22% margin, approved a state constitutional amendment to give the Rhode Island Ethics Commission authority to investigate and punish state lawmakers, as Kentucky’s Legislative Ethics Commission is authorized to do. The amendment constitutionalizes oversight the commission once had over the Legislature, but which was lost in a 2009 state court ruling.

Voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly approved a local measure to prohibit lobbyists from making any sort of gift to a city official and ban officials from accepting such gifts. Again, like Kentucky’s ethics code, the new law will also ban lobbyists from contributing to politicians’ campaigns and prevent them from gathering donations from others to present in a “bundle” to politicians’ campaigns.

San Francisco’s new law will also prevent lobbyists from going through a third party to give a gift. This eliminates the frequent practice of organizations and businesses funding travel of elected officials by, for example, donating to a sister-city committee organizing a trip abroad and sending their lobbyists along for the ride.

In gaining the support of 87 percent of voters, the ethics measure drew a higher percentage than any of the other two dozen initiatives on the city’s ballot.

Voters in statewide and local elections in California, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington State approved campaign finance reforms, including contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

In addition to the voter-approved reforms, legislators and legislative leaders in several states are recommending ethics law changes, many of which mirror Kentucky law. Those efforts in Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, and New York are detailed in some of the stories below.

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