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Ethics: Lawmakers must disclose conflicts of interest

State legislators should not have to ask whether their peers will financially benefit from laws they help enact. But this is West Virginia. History, including recent events, tells us the questions have to be asked.

One came up before state senators voted to approve an education savings account bill. If passed by the House of Delegates, which convenes today the measure, Senate Bill 1040, would allow many parents to tap into state funds to help pay costs of sending their children to private schools.

During discussion of the proposal, Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, asked Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, a question. Rucker is chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

“Senator, can legislators benefit from Senate Bill 1040? Can a senator open his or her own school and benefit from these accounts,” asked Ihlenfeld. “Do we have legislators right now who will benefit from these accounts?”

At least during public debate, it appears Ihlenfeld’s questions were not answered. That is a bit of a concern.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reporting showed one senator, Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, is involved with a private school. It is Victory Baptist Academy near Beckley. If the bill is enacted and the academy qualifies, some parents of its students could receive education savings account assistance.

Obviously, neither Roberts nor any other legislator should financially benefit from any bill for which they vote.

It is shameful that has to be said. But, again, this is West Virginia.

SB 1040 does not appear to reference such situations. Roberts voted for it.

Institutions such as Victory Baptist Academy frequently are non-profit operations. Still, their administrators and staff benefit from being paid salaries.

Conflicts of interest, banned by Senate rules, can be complicated. For example, should legislators affected indirectly by bills refrain from voting on them? Some lawmakers, including Ihlenfeld, are married to public school teachers, as the Gazette-Mail noted. The education savings accounts would divert some money from public schools.

So yes, it is complicated.

But questions about conflicts of interest still need to be asked — and answered publicly. Lawmakers owe their constituents explanations if any of those questions involve them.

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