Two weeks ago, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission held its final hearing on proposed rules for this year. The unusual process calls for the Commission to write ethics rules then send them to the Legislature at the beginning of session. Lawmakers can veto the rules; otherwise, they take effect when session is over.
While the Commission has backed away from one obviously unconstitutional proposal, the debate exposed an unfortunate trend toward mission creep that threatens the agency’s core mission.
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission was created in the early 1990s when Oklahoma voters—rightly fed up with repeated tax hikes and corruption scandals— also enacted term limits and adopted the taxpayer protections in State Question 640.
A distinguishing feature of American government is that it is limited. For example, the U.S. Constitution spells out the powers of the federal government and leaves everything else to the states. In the case of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, state law is likewise specific. Transgressing these boundaries is nothing short of lawless.
The Oklahoma Constitution grants the Commission power to “promulgate rules of ethical conduct for state officers and employees, including civil penalties for violation of these rules.” And that’s all. The proposal dropped by the Commission two weeks ago would have regulated private people talking with other private people about what goes on in the Legislature — clearly beyond the agency’s power.
Still, the Commission has moved forward with other rules that tinker with political fundraising in ways that stretch these boundaries and do nothing to make government more ethical. Rather than focusing on real corruption, it has wrapped legitimate political practices in so much red tape that just about any campaign will fall afoul of one rule or another.
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission has an important mission. It also has a great staff, as anyone who has worked with them knows. But the Commissioners need to steer the agency back on track.
How about an initiative to simplify and even reduce current rules? Commissioners could test every rule, and any new proposal, with two questions. First, is this within our lawful power? Second, is it easy for ordinary people to figure out and comply with?
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission has an important and challenging mission. Squandering its power on mission creep is bad for our state. Some might even say it’s unethical.
Trent England serves as the executive vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).