Lawmakers were taken by surprise this past fall when they learned a bill they passed would actually make their jobs much more difficult.
On Nov. 1, the Legislature’s select committee on legislative ethics interpreted a conflict of interest law (House Bill 44) as much more restrictive than even the bill’s main sponsor thought it would be. The committee interpreted the bill as saying that if a legislator declared a conflict of interest about a bill or topic, they couldn’t have private conversations about that topic.
Former Rep. Jason Grenn, who sponsored the bill, said in an interview Thursday that he was “disheartened” that the law ended up being so restrictive.
“At no time during the hearings in the House or the Senate did (legislative legal or legislative ethics committees) ever bring up that this potentially would be their interpretation,” Grenn said. “We worked with them, obviously, when we drafted the bill, and wanted to make sure it fit with what our intentions were.”
Now, legislators are trying to take the law back into their own hands. Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, introduced Senate Bill 89 on Wednesday that rolls back much of the provisions of HB 44. Coghill argued that the interpretation of HB 44 inhibited free speech and the duty of the Legislature to do its job.
“This bill narrowly targets provisions of a law enacted last year that conflicted with the First Amendment and created uncertainty around the legislative process,” Coghill said in a release.
Grenn said the bill is too aggressive, though, and repeals too much of the bill he thought would hold lawmakers accountable.
“That obviously I think says, ‘We don’t want to put the work in to make the fix, we’ll just go back to the old status quo,’” Grenn said. “The public doesn’t want that, I don’t think the legislators want that. Again, they voted in favor of the bill. They saw some need for this bill to become law.”
Legislators have said that they agree with the intent behind the bill but not the way it was interpreted. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, has been particularly vocal about how difficult HB 44 has made her job. She had to pull a health care bill of hers because her husband works in the field.
Hughes is also the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She had to refuse to hear Senate Bill 32, which dealt mostly with sentencing changes, because of the same conflict. One part of that bill, she said, deals with therapeutic courts. Her husband’s clinic sometimes prescribes medication to people going through treatment for substance use disorders.
“If we were a professional year-round legislature and we were all eunuchs, if we had no spouses or partners, the way it was written maybe would have worked,” Hughes said. “It just doesn’t work for a citizen part-time legislature where we have families. It just doesn’t work.”
Hughes said the bill might be heard as soon as next week, and could get to the floor shortly afterward. She said she’s looking forward to answering constituents’ questions and reintroducing her health care legislation after SB 89 goes through.
She said she isn’t concerned that the new legislation is too broad.
“In this building, the people who are here tend to try to hold a high standard of ethics,” Hughes said. “We’re not writing bills for our own selfish profit. We just aren’t.”
Grenn said he’d like the bill to get a closer look as it goes through committees. It will start in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Hughes as chair. Grenn said he hopes the final version of this bill will be a gentler change to his law instead of a total repeal.
“I agree that there needs to be a tweak to this to make sure that there’s a balance between a public desire for stricter conflict of interest rules, and at the same time not handcuffing legislators so they feel that they can’t do their work in an effective manner,” Grenn said.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.