Ethics panel needs hands-off treatment
Among the toughest tasks for any legislature is writing laws that affect its own members.
This helps explain why campaign financing legislation is so tough for lawmakers.
This also explains why the matter of salaries for the folks who run the state Ethics Commission has received such focused attention at the Legislature over the years.
It's no wonder. The Ethics Commission is a creation of the Legislature, yet one of its major functions is to keep a close eye on the ethical practices and occasional lapses of state lawmakers.
So it's easy to see why legislators might wish to keep a heavy thumb on the salaries and other perquisites of those who are, in effect, their ethical watchdogs.
That is precisely what has happened.
In its early years, the salary of the executive director (both the administrative officer and chief legal counsel to the commission) was set by the commission itself an appointed body of impartial citizens.
Then, in 1982, lawmakers rewrote the law so that they would set the salary of the executive director. The potential conflicts of interests in that arrangement are obvious.
A modest compromise was reached in 1992, when some authority to set salaries was restored to the Ethics Commission. It could pay its director within the range of pay given to deputy directors of state departments.
This year, a bill now in conference committee would take a major step backward. It would allow the Ethics Commission to set the pay of its executive director, but only up to and no more than the pay of the first deputy state auditor.
This not only downgrades the pay of the director, it puts ultimate authority over his or her pay in the hands of the state auditor, who is allowed to set the salary of her first deputy.
That makes no sense. Lawmakers should let the Ethics Commission itself decide the pay of its top staff.
If the Legislature believes there should be a limit on the salary of the executive director of the Ethics Commission, then it should be pegged to that of a District Court judge.
The key here is to eliminate any suggestion that lawmakers have any direct pocketbook influence over the commission and its key staffers. The Legislature did itself proud when it created the independent Ethics Commission.
It should honor that decision by setting rules that keep the commission free from political interference real or perceived.