Oregonians Win Ethics Reform Victory in Legislature

For Immediate Release: June 27, 2007

Contact: Janice Thompson, (503) 283-1922

Oregonians Win Ethics Reform Victory in Legislature

Comprehensive Three Bill Reform Package Will Restore Government Accountability

With the passage of Senate Bill 10, the legislature has delivered a strong ethics reform package necessary to begin restoring public trust in government.

“Hats off to the Oregon legislature for passing one of the strongest ethics reform package in the country,” said Janice Thompson, executive director of Democracy Reform Oregon. “One bill provides a major boost to the ethics commission budget, another provides critical tools so the commission can do a better job, and this third bill includes a long list of government ethics improvements.”

“SB 10 brings Oregon’s government ethics reporting into the 21st century with quarterly electronic filing and online access for the public,” continued Thompson. “In addition this bill imposes strict limits on gifts including entertainment and meals to public officials from lobbyists and others with a legislative interest.”

“SB 10 also insulates the ethics commission’s budget from possible retaliation by legislators subject to the agency’s oversight because the bill provides a diversified source of funding,” said Thompson.

The new funding scheme spreads the financial support across the large number of communities and public agencies that refer complaints to the ethics commission, ensuring that the agency receives enough money. At the same time, the fiscal impact on any one entity is eased because of the many political jurisdictions over which the ethics agency budget is distributed. Administering this funding mechanism is simplified by piggybacking on existing procedures to cover costs.

“By providing proper funding for state ethics agency oversight, training and enforcement activities, the legislature is ensuring that Oregon’s governmental ethics laws are more than words on a page,” said Leah Rush, Director of State Projects for the Center for Public Integrity.

Other provisions in SB 10 include a one-year waiting period before legislators can return to the capitol as lobbyists and an increase in potential fines for ethics violations from $1,000 to $5,000 as well as providing the flexibility to issue letters of correction for inadvertent or minor problems.

SB 10 also begins the process of tightening rules on use of campaign funds by not allowing their use for payment of ethics fines and related legal fees. “Not allowing ethics fines to be paid for with campaign dollars is an important first step,” said Thompson.

During the next legislative session, additional restrictions on use of campaign funds should be adopted along with anticipated recommendations to increase legislative pay. It is also important that legislators, especially those who commute long distances to Salem and within their districts, receive a boost in per diem expenses.

Thompson was on the advisory committee to the Oregon Law Commission’s Ethics Work Group that met throughout 2006. Both SB 10 and its house ethics reform companion, HB 2595, include many of the recommendations resulting from this interim activity. HB 2595 focuses on critical nuts-and-bolts improvements to the operations of the ethics agency. Ethics reports will be audited and public officials will receive additional guidance with the bill’s emphasis on explanatory rules and clarifications in use of advisory opinions.

The bill increasing the ethics commission’s budget allows the agency to restore an investigator position and add a trainer, following up on the Ethics Work Group suggestion for an increased emphasis on helping public officials avoid ethics violations through education. “The legislature increased the agency’s budget after many years of decreases,” said Thompson. “The proactive emphasis on education is cost-effective,” she continued.

“Because of the unique funding mechanism and other wide-ranging changes, Oregon’s ethics package is one of the most robust in legislatures this year, “said Rush, whose work at the Center for Public Integrity includes study of ethics laws across the country.

“These strong ethics laws will increase governmental accountability and transparency,” summarized Thompson. “Campaign finance reform is a logical next step that will complement this comprehensive ethics reform package.”

Democracy Reform Oregon (DRO) is a non-partisan, not-for-profit group working to increase accountability and opportunities for participation in politics and governmental decision-making. DRO has been working on democracy reform issues since 1999 and was formerly the Money in Politics Research Action Project.

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Note: Democracy Reform Oregon became Common Cause Oregon in August 2009.