Q&A: State lawmaker disclosures point to potential conflicts
The Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press analyzed financial disclosure reports from 6,933 state legislators around the country and found that three out of four lawmakers had income from other employment.
While outside jobs give lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, it also provides an opening for potential conflicts of interest. Lawmakers’ businesses and the industries they work in can be directly affected by the actions of the legislatures. The reporting unearthed numerous examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly or indirectly helps their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances.
Even then, their actions do not necessarily represent a conflict of interest as defined by state legislatures. Legislatures set their own rules about what constitutes a conflict and at what point lawmakers should recuse themselves from a vote.
WHAT ARE FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE REPORTS AND WHY DO THEY MATTER?
Personal financial disclosure reports are intended to help the public understand where and how government officials get their income, and whether any of those ties present conflicts of interest with their political work.
These disclosures are especially important for state lawmakers. Unlike many other elected officials, legislators across the country often hold other jobs and run businesses when legislatures are not in session. The AP and Center for Public Integrity review found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers holding office in 2015 had outside jobs.
That’s different than in Congress, where moonlighting by members has been sharply restricted since 1978.
Only three states — Michigan, Idaho and Vermont — have not required such reports. In June, though, Vermont announced that it will begin requiring them in 2018.
WHAT KINDS OF JOBS DO LEGISLATORS HOLD OUTSIDE OF THEIR POLITICAL OFFICE?
State lawmakers work all kinds of jobs and sometimes more than one. Lawyers and those with ties to real estate tend to dominate, but some legislators also drive taxis, wait tables, own cemeteries, judge boxing matches, play guitar in rock bands or deal in rare coins.
Such outside employment gives lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, but many of those jobs are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures. That can create conflicts of interest.
HOW CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT MY LEGISLATOR’S FINANCIAL TIES?
Out of the 47 states that require personal financial disclosures, the completed forms are available online in 31 states. In the remaining 16 states, those who want to view the reports might need to email a clerk or take more complicated steps such as showing their photo IDs or requesting the documents in person.
The Center for Public Integrity has made it easier by putting disclosures from a total of 6,933 lawmakers in 47 states who held office in 2015 into a searchable digital library.
HOW OFTEN DO LEGISLATORS UPDATE THEIR REPORTS?
In most states, the reports are filed annually. But in North Dakota, disclosures are required only in election years.
North Carolina and Colorado require lawmakers to file initial reports that detail their employment and investments. Each subsequent year, though, they can file a form stating only that nothing has changed since the prior report. In these two states, you might have to collect multiple years’ reports if you want to get a complete view of your lawmaker’s disclosure. We have gathered those older files in our disclosure library.
WHAT DO THE DISCLOSURES CONTAIN?
Some states ask lawmakers to detail the jobs of their spouses or children, their businesses, investments, real estate holdings or even ties to lobbyists. Others ask for little beyond the legislators’ sources of income.
New Hampshire’s form contains only two sections: a checklist to declare if lawmakers believe they have a conflict in certain areas; and a space to declare sources of income over $10,000.
On the Wyoming form, in addition to questions about income sources, two checkboxes ask whether the filer has any real estate or security holdings. But the lawmaker does not have to provide additional details on which stocks or where the real estate is located.
CAN LEGISLATORS VOTE ON A BILL WHEN THEY HAVE TIES TO IT?
It depends on the state. In every state except Oregon and Utah, legislators can abstain or ask to be recused from voting on legislation. Most states specify that they should do so if the legislation presents a conflict of interest.
But many lawmakers are still allowed to debate, and sometimes even vote, on legislation and amendments that might benefit them or their companies. Louisiana allows lawmakers to debate bills that benefit a personal or financial interest even after they have recused themselves. California lawmakers can vote on legislation even after declaring conflicts of interest if their votes are “fair and objective.”
In the Idaho Senate and the Kansas House, legislators need two-thirds of the chamber’s permission to abstain.
Oregon and Utah require lawmakers to vote if they are present, regardless of any potential conflicts of interest. Many legislators say frequent abstentions would keep their chambers from working properly.