James Strickler runs a small oil and gas production company in Farmington, N.M. But for a handful of weeks each year, Strickler heads down to Santa Fe, where he takes on a different role, as an elected representative in the state House. A member of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Strickler invariably is asked to vote on legislation that directly affects his business’ bottom line -- including a bill this February that would have increased fees for energy companies that drill wells in the state. Strickler voted against that bill, which ultimately failed on the floor.
Situations like Strickler’s are not uncommon. Most state legislatures don’t pay enough to count as full-time jobs, so lawmakers often maintain other jobs in the private sector. When those fields overlap, there’s an inherent conflict of interest, according to a new report from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit investigative journalism group in Washington, D.C. The report highlights examples in New Mexico (including Strickler specifically), Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada and Utah. In legislatures in those states and elsewhere, CPI says, conflicts of interest “run rampant.”
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Conflicts of interest aren’t inherently bad, argues Peggy Kerns, who oversees ethics research at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Kerns was a member of the Colorado House of Representatives in the 1990s and says she appreciated when lawmakers came from industry-specific backgrounds. There are potential problems, she says, with “someone voting or carrying a bill that actually gives them a financial benefit, but the cases are very rare where legislators do that.”
“When you have a part-time citizen legislature, you have built-in structural conflicts of interest. It’s just inevitable,” says Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, who chairs a special committee on ethics reform. It’s a trade-off, Raskin argues. Unlike members of Congress, who are prohibited from outside employment, state lawmakers “are far more accessible, available and engaged in the daily life of the community. [But] legislators have to be very careful to separate their professional work lives outside the general assembly from their role as legislators.”
Some structural checks already exist in state legislatures to prevent lawmakers from using their political positions for personal financial gain. All but three states require legislators to disclose their sources of income, and 40 states place limits on what a lawmaker can vote on, according to a NCSL analysis. Ethics oversight bodies exist in 41 state legislatures. That may not be enough, according to CPI, which last year graded 28 state ethics committees a D or F for being ineffective.
Dozens of new laws aimed at reducing conflicts of interest have been introduced this year. Kerns said she remains skeptical about the effectiveness of ethics laws because ethical behavior is about more than following the letter of the law. It’s about good moral behavior. “Laws do not make people act ethical,” she says.
Is there necessarily a problem when someone’s professional and legislative lives intersect? James Strickler says there’s not. “I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest,” Strickler told CPI. “I think it’s a blessing that a few of us have some understanding of that industry.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that California enacted a law this year that prohibits county officials from hiring or employing immediate family. Rather, the law (Assembly Bill 1399) was enacted in a previous legislative session and the portion on hiring or employing an immediate family member got struck from the final version of the bill. The law did prohibit certain kinds of gifts to family members, such as a vehicle or credit card provided by the local agency that the local official represents.