- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A state representative may offer a last-minute change to strengthen a plan to create Vermont’s first ethics commission, an idea lawmakers have floated for years but is only now coming to fruition.

The measure creating a commission has been approved by the Senate and two key House panels, and appears ready for a final House vote.

The commission’s main function would be accepting ethical complaints about state officials and referring them to the appropriate oversight body, such as the attorney general’s office or legislative ethics committees. Vermont is one of just five states without some sort of ethics oversight body, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I’m disappointed that it doesn’t do more,” said Democratic Rep. David Yacavone. He said he wants to offer an amendment forcing lawmakers to give detailed financial disclosures showing income sources.

As the bill stands, lawmakers would only have to disclose that they’ve received “investment income” over $5,000, but not the sort of investment. Yacovone wants more detail.

“It allows people to ask the question ‘Dave you derive a portion of your income from banks and you’re regulating them?’” he said.

Yacovone isn’t the only one disappointed over the proposed commission’s weakness. Secretary of State Jim Condos has consistently argued for a commission that would have a full time staff and the ability to investigate complaints with subpoena power.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group have both argued for similar changes. They also argue for a clause that would force candidates for any statewide office to disclose their tax returns, a piece that House lawmakers struck from their version of the bill.

On the other side, some lawmakers say Vermont doesn’t need an ethics commission. Democratic Rep. David Deen, who chairs the House Ethics Committee, said the current systems are working just fine.

Despite the critics, House lawmakers seem to like the bill. The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill on an 11-0 vote Thursday. The measure includes a provision that would allow the commission to collect 2.3 percent of each state agency’s budget to pay its bills.

The House Government Operations Committee approved it last week, and committee chair, Democratic Rep. Maida Townsend said the consensus was hard fought.

“I think this is overdue, to get something like this in place,” Townsend said. “And if this is what we can get in place now, fine, even if it’s not as robust as … some folks would like.”

Yacovone said he’s still working on crafting his amendment and acknowledges he doesn’t have much time to gather support with legislative leaders because the session will end next week. But he said he’s worried that if lawmakers don’t fix the bill now, they won’t consider changes if it becomes law.

“My fear is once Vermont makes this step, it will be the only step for a very long time,” he said.

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