- Associated Press - Thursday, April 6, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A House panel has delayed a vote on a bill that would create an independent body to take in ethics complaints about state officials, but Republican Gov. Phil Scott said he would sign whatever the House sends to his desk.

“I’ve said that we need an ethics bill, so I’m fine with it, whatever they come up with,” Scott said Thursday.

A similar bill failed in the House Committee on Government Operations last year. The committee is considering it now, and Democratic committee Chair Maida Townsend said she will schedule more time next week.

“I don’t think we’re quite there yet in terms of due diligence,” Townsend said.

Indications for this year’s bill are strong. The bill has support from Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and a cohort of House members, Johnson spokeswoman Katherine Levasseur said.

“There is support for ethics legislation among House members,” Levasseur said in an email. “The question for many is not whether or not this is a step in the right direction, rather, what the right measures for Vermont to enact this year are.”

The Senate approved the bill on a voice vote this session.

There are only five states without ethics commissions, Vermont, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Vermont’s ethics commission would not be empowered with any enforcement abilities. Rather, it would be a conduit for complaints and would refer them to the appropriate state agency.

Republican Sen. Joe Benning, chair of the Senate Committee on Ethics, testified in front of the House Committee on Government Operations on Wednesday in support of the bill.

“The bottom line is we’re just trying to be transparent,” he said. “We’re just trying to give people an idea of who we are.”

The House ethics committee chair, Democratic Rep. David Deen, testified shortly after and said he thinks lawmakers should continue to handle their own ethics complaints.

“In my opinion, what we have is working,” Deen said.

Deen said he was worried that a state ethics commission with too much power over lawmakers could violate the state constitution, which grants the state’s legislative bodies sole authority over themselves.

“You understand my concerns about going through an outside process,” he said.

Financial disclosures of top state officials and all lawmakers would be required under the bill. The House and the Senate have their own disclosure rules, but under this bill the disclosures would be standardized and posted online.

Longtime lobbyist and former journalist Kevin Ellis said he supported the bill in philosophy but worried about the effect disclosures and lobbying restrictions have on finding good lawmakers to serve in a state as small as Vermont. Included in the bill are new restrictions on lawmakers working as lobbyists shortly after leaving the legislature. Ellis said he was “torn.”

“Because I’m a little bit of a First Amendment absolutist,” Ellis said. “How can you restrict somebody’s ability to work and earn a living and petition the government under a First Amendment?”

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