Bredesen staying out of ethics debate

Gov. Phil Bredesen says he is going to stay out of the debate over ethics reform and let lawmakers work through the issue themselves. "I wouldn't presume to tell the Legislature how to run their business, but I certainly hope that they do something," Bredesen said Tuesday. The General Assembly has been engaged in a debate over how to clean up its image after allegations Sen. John Ford used his position to land high-dollar consulting contracts. The Senate Ethics Committee has brought in an independent counsel to investigate the matter. And lawmakers are debating dozens of ethics proposals that would make it illegal for lawmakers to consult or lobby, force more disclosure on income and restrict general lobbying efforts. But Bredesen, who quickly set up a new ethics policy for the executive branch after taking office, said he will let the General Assembly tackle its credibility problem. "I'm very respectful of this notion of separation of powers," he said. "They really are a separate and equal branch of government. I give them great deference in sorting out their own problems, just as I would ask for that same deference sorting out our own issues." One proposal being hashed out in a Senate committee would also ban spouses of lawmakers or members of the governor's staff from becoming lobbyists. Bredesen, who said the proposal might affect some of his commissioners who have spouses that are part-time lobbyists, said the issue should be examined. But in some cases, especially where the lobbying work is unrelated to a commissioner's job, he said disclosure of the potential conflict might be just as good. In the past, ethics reform in the Legislature has died after the House and the Senate passed different versions. If that happens again, Bredesen said he would still be hesitant to jump into the issue. "I guess there is a point if things became egregious enough that it's affecting the operation of state government, I'd feel an obligation to say something," he said. "But I don't think we're at that point yet." House Democratic Leader Kim McMillan, who is sponsoring ethics reforms, doesn't think that will happen again. "I do not believe it is a possibility," she said. "I am as committed today, and this year as I was last year to passing meaningful ethics legislation. And I will do whatever is necessary to see that occurs." She also said she and Minority Leader Tre Hargett are making progress putting together an ad-hoc committee that will be charged with making plans for an independent ethics commission. McMillan said the governor is doing the right thing by letting the Legislature lead on ethics reform.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)