At Hearing Over Proposed Ethics Reforms, State Reps Have Questions About Enforcement | New Hampshire Public Radio

At Hearing Over Proposed Ethics Reforms, State Reps Have Questions About Enforcement

Mar 2, 2020

New Hampshire lawmakers continue to wrestle with questions about where to draw the line between their work inside and outside the State House. 

A Senate committee recently heard initial testimony on a bill that would prevent lawmakers “from introducing legislation, testifying, voting, participating in, or influencing any legislative matter directly related to [their] employment.” Another bill that would require lawmakers to recuse themselves if they have a “special interest” in a particular piece of legislation got its first hearing on Monday.

But as evidenced at Monday’s hearing on the proposed ethics reforms, some lawmakers have already been wrestling with these questions for quite some time.

The person chairing the hearing, House Majority Leader Doug Ley, was reprimanded last year over his involvement in legislation that affected his employer, a statewide teachers union. The Legislative Ethics Committee said Ley, a Democrat representing Jaffrey, violated ethics rules by testifying and voting on multiple bills that directly affected his union. In its ruling, the committee also acknowledged that those rules were not as clear as they could be. 

Also on the committee presiding over the House conflict of interest bill was Republican Rep. Greg Hill of Northfield, who sought guidance from the Legislative Ethics Committee in 2018 about whether he could accept a job with an organization that lobbies on education policy issues. 

In that case, the ethics committee said that if Hill took the job, he wouldn’t be able to “introduce legislation, testify before any legislative committee or state agency, vote in committee or in House session, or otherwise participate in, influence, or attempt to influence any decision of the legislature, county delegation, or any state agency on matters directly related to the interests" of his employer. 

During the hearing, both Ley and Hill peppered the bill’s sponsor, Ethics Committee Chairman and Republican Rep. Ned Gordon, with questions about how the new rules would be applied. Ley had considerably more questions about the new rules, asking Gordon a series of hypothetical questions about how the new rules might affect legislators who are landlords, lawyers, consultants or simply members — not leaders — of nonprofit boards.

Gordon said the intention of the proposed reforms isn’t to shut down all conversations among lawmakers about their personal lives or lines of work. But there are circumstances, he argued, where legislators should not be influencing public policy that could have a direct influence on their own lives.

“If I had current use and I wanted to discuss current use with another legislator in the cafeteria over lunch, I would not consider that to be legislative activity,” Gordon said. “If I was making an effort to contact the chair of the committee that had responsibility for it, to try to convince them, that certainly would be.”

After the hearing wrapped up, another lawmaker on the committee voiced her own concerns about how stricter conflict of interest rules might impact legislative business.

“This is going to be impossible,” said Rep. Betsy McKinney, of Derry. “At least a third of the House is covered by the state pension.”

Other lawmakers in the room chimed in, agreeing that this was a point worthy of more consideration.

“You think of retired teachers, retired firemen, retired policemen, in this House —  to say nothing of the state workers, town workers, so forth,” McKinney continued. “If you had a pension question, about a third of them couldn’t vote, we wouldn’t have quorum, maybe in some cases.”

Gordon, in response, said state retirees are generally allowed to vote on legislation involving state retirement benefits — unless that legislation would affect a specific class of retirees that they belong to. As a retired judge, for example, Gordon said he recused himself from voting last session on a bill that would have affected judicial retirement funds.

Josh Rogers contributed reporting to this story.