Legislative ethics going down a slippery slope

By Grant Bosse on February 11, 2013
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FOR THE MONITOR

Some New Hampshire lawmakers would like their free skiing back. For years, state-owned Cannon Mountain Ski Area gave away free passes for all New Hampshire House and Senate members. Two years ago, the Legislative Ethics Committee put a stop to the freebies, and now some our of elected representatives are fighting to restore their perks.

The ethics code for the New Hampshire Legislature bars lawmakers from accepting gifts valued at more than $25. In 2011, Rep. Edmond Gionet wrote to the Legislative Ethics Committee asking whether he could accept an offer from Cannon Mountain general manager for free skiing. House and members could get a free lift ticket for themselves and a guest any day that Cannon was open all winter. The public pays $68 for a day ticket, $45 for seniors 65 or over.

In the Legislative Ethics Committee Advisory Opinion, attorney Martin Gross writes that the free lift tickets meet the definition of a gift barred by ethics rules, unless the Legislature carves out a specific exemption for them.

This year, Berlin Democratic Gary Coulombe has introduced a bill carving out just such an exemption. Under HB 514, which has Republican and Democratic cosponsors, House and Senate members would be allowed to accept free passes to Cannon from the director of parks and recreation.

Supporters of the give-away argue that lawmakers can learn more about Cannon’s operations if they ski on the mountain, and that since they only get paid $100 a year, a couple of small perks for their service is no big deal. Neither argument is persuasive.

If free skiing educates lawmakers on the Parks Division, maybe we should give them free booze at the Hooksett rest stops in provide insight on the Liquor Commission. Maybe paying their car registration will help them manage the DMV. If they really wanted to learn about Cannon, they’d pay the same price we do in order to compare it to its commercial competitors.

Free lift tickets aren’t a big deal, but they are a conflict of interest. Elected officials should not be receiving gifts from organizations seeking their financial support, even if they are from another branch of government.

Since 1999, we’ve leased out operations at Mount Sunapee Ski Area and used the proceeds to pay for capital improvements

at Cannon. Those projects have helped turn Cannon around, and the mountain actually turned an operational profit for the first time two years ago. It lost money again last winter. Since 1999, we’ve poured more than $9.2 million in public money into Cannon Mountain. If we leased out Cannon operations like Sunapee, those subsidies could go to New Hampshire’s smaller, unfunded state parks.

We would never put up with lawmakers getting free passes at Cranmore or Bretton Woods. Favors from a state agency, dependant on the budget they write, is an even bigger conflict.

If we do write a Cannon exemption into our ethics laws, we should keep track of who uses it. Before the Ethics Committee put a stop to the practice, the Parks Division didn’t record which lawmakers skied for free, or who they brought as guests. They could show up on the mountain, flash their member badge, and get waved onto the chair lift. Such lax record keeping flouts New Hampshire’s Right To Know Law, and provides a huge window to abuse the system.

For years, UNH handed out free hockey tickets at the State House. When I made a Right To Know request to find out who got the tickets, and how much it costs, I was told that the university had stopped giving tickets away and hadn’t kept any records of who had received them.

In addition to their lavish $100 annual salary and mileage for travel to and from the State House, House and Senate members also get free passage through New Hampshire toll booths. They used to just point to their legislative plate, and the toll booth operator would wave them through. Now, many receive a state EZ Pass transponder that triggers a green light, but doesn’t charge their account.

When New Hampshire adopted EZ Pass, privacy advocates rightly worried about the state misusing driver data, and built a rock solid firewall protecting all EZ Pass transponder information from public scrutiny. That well-meaning provision now shields lawmakers and state employees from public oversight. Making this information public, solely on state-owned transponders, would ensure they are only being used for state business. I’ve been assured by DOT that these transponders only work in New Hampshire, so at least we know that no one is cruising down the Jersey Turnpike on our dime.

I don’t begrudge state representatives a few small perks. My father served in the House, and I worked there under Speakers Donna Sytek and Gene Chandler. I have great respect for the traditions on the House, and the dedication shown by most of our elected representatives. But they are there to serve us, and we have a right to know about any special treatment they receive.

Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy.

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