It’s a fundamental part of representative government: Politicians are elected to advocate for their constituents, and not their own interests.
But in many states, laws and ethics rules allow representatives to advance bills that would benefit their own financial interests, as well.
Take Louisiana, where lawmakers only have to recuse themselves if a proposed bill benefits them specifically and no one else, as The Advocate and ProPublica have detailed this week. So, for example, if the owner of a group of nursing homes votes for a bill that would increase profits for his business, but not for other nursing home owners, that would be a conflict of interest. But if the bill increases profit for the entire industry, then it’s acceptable.
Similar language exists in the majority of states, regardless of whether they have full-time, part-time or citizen legislatures. In part-time and citizen legislatures, in which lawmakers are not paid a full salary and often rely on other employment, this means people connected to certain industries or fields are not automatically barred from voting on legislation that might affect them financially.
“The increasing complexity of public policy at all levels, with intervention into private affairs, makes conflicts of interest almost inevitable for every part-time public official and particularly for a member who must vote on measures affecting the life of every citizen or resident of the state,” the Legislative Manual of North Dakota states.
This can mean situations that look like conflicts of interest often technically aren’t, according to the letter of the law. In Alabama, State Sen. William Beasley proposed legislation last year that would exempt prescription medicine from business license taxes, potentially saving pharmacies money. When he is not making laws, Beasley is president of the company that owns Clayton Drug Company and operates a chain of pharmacies.
Beasley stands to personally benefit from the legislation, but so do…