Ethics efforts much needed

Published 6:52 am Wednesday, February 4, 2004

By Staff
People want and need better roads to drive on. In some places, like here in Brewton and East Brewton, people want new roads altogether, such as those a new truck route would create. Parents and those who care for their communities want to know that children are receiving the best possible public education. And taxpayers everywhere want to feel comfortable about the way matters of crime and punishment are being handled by those responsible.
To a great degree, our state government plays a role in plotting the future course of each of these issues, and many others that affect citizens as they go about their daily lives. Deciding how and where money will be spent, making priorities of some issues while others are shelved and latching onto possible solutions at the expense of others -- the authority Montgomery's lawmakers have over our communities' futures is substantial. And we all expect, rightfully so, that it be wielded responsibly.
It goes without saying that the Alabama State Legislature is looking at a full plate as its regular session begins this month.
Most of the things that lawmakers will deal with this year are like transportation, education and crime, in that they are areas with tangible, easy to quantify problems -- most revolving around money -- and potential solutions we can all get a firm grip on. They're the kind of issues we all envision when we elect these people and send them off to the state capitol to cast votes on our behalf.
But what about ethics? With all the problems facing Alabama, how much time should lawmakers spend discussing this somewhat less tangible issue? How many valuable hours should be spent discussing ethical legislative behavior, and ways lawmakers can be held accountable for practicing anything else?
Since a case can be made that many of the state's current financial woes can be traced to Alabamians' lack of trust in their elected officials, you could argue that the answer is, "as much time as need be."
Last fall, Gov. Bob Riley and the Legislature presented Alabama voters with a massive plan for new taxes which, if passed, would have prevented many of the funding problems now plaguing state agencies. While the sheer size of plan -- about $1.2 billion -- likely scared voters to some degree, the reason most gave for not implementing the new taxes was that they did not trust elected officials to spend the money wisely. Or, one could imply, ethically.
Steps should be taken to, as much as possible, correct that image. Not necessarily so that the governor and lawmakers can cook up another huge tax package, and this time inspire enough confidence at the polls to get it passed. But so that whatever solutions they do come up with are greeted only with healthy skepticism, instead of outright mistrust.
Getting to that point will be require a long, difficult process -- one which has already begun. Riley has taken the voters' lack of trust seriously enough to seek advice from the private sector on changes needed to restore some measure of trust and create real accountability. He's also drawn up a set of ethics standards for executive branch staffers to conduct themselves by, and is supplying those standards to the Legislature in hopes that body will follow suit.
The discussion of ethics and accountability will likely be as hot a topic this session as any other, and it's appropriate.
Politicians should never enjoy the sort of trust we grant our friends and neighbors. They're too far away, are in control of too much, and, frankly, often have too many people whispering in their ears. But it is incumbent upon those populating state government to maintain a basic connection with those who've elected them, and somehow, somewhere along the way, Alabama's lawmakers seem to have lost that.
Now is a good time for them to begin winning it back, and any efforts Riley and the Legislature make toward that end are welcome.

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