Legislature Considers Whether To Tighten Its Own Conflict of Interest Rules

Feb 19, 2020

Responding to a pair of high-profile ethics cases that highlighted the lack of clear restrictions on conflicts of interest at the State House, lawmakers are weighing how best to balance their role as citizen legislators with a desire to prevent politicians from exploiting public office for private gain.

Since 2018, the Legislative Ethics Committee has told two state representatives — one Republican, one Democrat — that they should not sponsor, testify or vote on bills that directly affect their employers. 

In one case, that advice came preemptively: Republican Rep. Greg Hill asked the ethics committee for advice on how to handle a prospective job with a nonprofit that frequently lobbies on education policy issues. In another case, the ethics committee reprimanded House Majority Leader Doug Ley, a Democrat, for repeatedly testifying and voting on legislation that directly affected the teachers union that employs him as its president.

But the advice espoused by the ethics committee is not clearly defined in state law. And as previously reported by NHPR, lawmakers are often left to exercise their own judgment as to whether they need to sit out of a particular bill due to a potential conflict of interest.

One proposal, put forward by a bipartisan group of state senators, would prevent legislators “from introducing legislation, testifying, voting, participating in, or influencing any legislative matter directly related to [their] employment.” That bill got its first hearing Wednesday.

Sen. Sharon Carson, one of the bill’s sponsors and a member of the ethics committee, said “it’s a struggle” to know where to draw the line between lawmakers’ jobs inside and outside the State House. That’s especially true given the structure of New Hampshire’s citizen legislature, where legislators earn only $100 a year and therefore often rely on some other job to make a living.

“We're trying to reach a balance that, yes, an individual has a job and they work at their job,” said Carson, a Republican. “But what do you do when there is an issue that's directly affecting their job that comes before the Legislature.”

A related proposal on deck in the House of Representatives would require legislators to recuse themselves from official legislative activities if someone in their household is being paid by an organization with “a special interest” in that activity. The bill also requires recusal if a legislator’s household member “is acting as counsel or serving as an attorney for any party which has a special interest in the official legislative activity,” “has an ownership interest in any business entity which has a special interest in the official legislative activity” or “serves in any official capacity in an organization whether nonprofit or for profit which is the subject of the official legislative activity.” 

One of that bill’s sponsors, Republican Rep. Ned Gordon, has said the proposal was prompted in part by NHPR’s reporting on the lack of clear definitions in the laws governing legislative conflicts of interest.

While the conversation about the future of New Hampshire’s legislative ethics laws is just beginning, it’s already forcing some lawmakers to wrestle directly with how they conduct themselves at the State House.

Soon after Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley finished explaining the scope of the proposed conflict of interest restrictions at Wednesday’s public hearing, one of his colleagues, Democratic Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh joked, “I thought you liked me, man!” 

The room laughed, and Bradley assured Cavanaugh, “I love you, man” — but left unspoken was the reality that Cavanaugh is one of the lawmakers who stands to be most directly affected by stricter ethics laws. He is an assistant business manager for a local labor union, and has opted not to recuse himself from legislation affecting his employer even after disclosing potential conflicts of interest

Cavanaugh is not alone in voting on legislation that could directly affect his employer. Democratic Senate President Donna Soucy also serves as an attorney for the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire and has similarly voted on bills even after declaring conflicts of interest.

And as Democratic Sen. Cindy Rosenwald pointed out at Wednesday’s hearing, the implications of stricter conflict of interest rules could be even more profound if they were to apply to state budget discussions, the most significant piece of policy that lawmakers vote on every two years. 

“It’s not only individual legislation, it’s also the budget — for example, you Madame Chair, work for the community college system,” Rosenwald said, addressing Carson, one of the sponsors of the new ethics proposals. “Does that mean you shouldn’t be able to vote or speak or talk about either the operating budget or the capital budget?”

Carson said she does not sit out of budget deliberations broadly but does refrain from voting on specific pieces of legislation related to the state’s community college system. She also said she sits out of votes on the veterans’ tax credit or other policies that could provide a clear benefit to her, as a veteran.

The goal of the proposed reforms, Carson said, isn’t to prevent lawmakers from applying their individual expertise on relevant policy issues — a doctor, for example, wouldn’t be prevented from testifying on public health legislation. But she said more definition is needed to help legislators know when their involvement on more targeted pieces of legislation could cross the line.

“A lot of it is left up to the individual legislator to figure it out on their own,” Carson said. “But this I think is really trying to get to the heart of the matter.”