Conflicts: Legislators should not be exempt from rules

Local and state officials in West Virginia are prohibited in a variety of ways from using their positions for personal gain. One is steering local or state contracts to businesses in which they have interests.

For example, a county board of education member whose family sells school buses cannot vote on a contract to buy vehicles from that business. A Department of Highways engineer cannot order asphalt from a firm owned by his father. You get the idea.

Nearly everyone in government is covered, but there is one exemption.

State legislators are not included in the ban.

Freshman state Sen. William Ihlenfeld II, D-Ohio, has introduced a bill to rescind the exemption. It seems like common sense that if conflicts of interest are a concern for most public officials, they ought to be a worry for the people who enact laws in our state.

It is interesting to note that at one time, lawmakers were covered by the conflict-of-interest law, according to Ihlenfeld.

“A carve-out was made for legislators, is my understanding,” he explained.

That means under current law, a legislator can vote for a bill ordering a state agency to buy, say, a particular type of pencils even if he owns the only company in West Virginia that stocks them. If enacted, Ihlenfeld’s bill would prohibit such shenanigans.

Obviously, legislators cannot avoid some situations in which they or family members may benefit from spending of taxpayers’ money. For example, an overly strict interpretation of bans on conflicts of interest might prevent lawmakers from voting on the state budget, through which billions of dollars are spent in tens of thousands of different ways.

But existing law, which Ihlenfeld hopes only to amend by including lawmakers, provides that to run afoul of it, public employees and officials must have “direct authority” or control over specific spending items.

There is no acceptable reason to exclude legislators from conflict-of-interest prohibitions, then. Both the state Senate and the House of Delegates should recognize that and approve Ihlenfeld’s measure — SB 370.

Refusing to do so would — and should — raise eyebrows among Mountain State residents who have every reason to be concerned about the possibility of public officials abusing the trust placed in them.