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OUR VIEW: Tight budget could give cover to cuts in government oversight

The Legislature 2011 Session

The State Capitol in Jackson.

Let’s hope that the Mississippi Ethics Commission is correct in thinking a proposal to take an 18 percent bite out of the watchdog agency’s budget grew out of a misunderstanding with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Otherwise, good government in the Magnolia State is about to sustain a serious wound.

In fact, a “devastating” one, Ethics Commission director Tom Hood says.

On the positive side, however, Mr. Hood told a Mississippi television station that if the agency’s $650,000 annual budget is cut, he does not expect it to be a full 18 percent.

The reason: The Joint Legislative Budget Committee was not fully aware that a position vacant at the time of the budget consideration was the Ethic Commission’s assistant directorship, a post that has since been filled.

“It’s a mistake” that is expected to be fixed, Ethics Commission chairman Ben Stone told us last Wednesday.

“I think they misunderstood one of our positions that was unfilled when they looked at it,” says Mr. Stone, a Gulfport lawyer and longtime member of the commission who notes in past years “the Legislature has always been very good to the Ethics Commission.”

We hope his faith is intact after legislators settle on a final budget.

But forgive us our doubts.

Mr. Hood thinks of the commission as the place lawmakers and state officials can come for guidance on how to follow the laws that apply to ethical conduct and open government.

Your garden variety legislator or state department head may view the Ethics Commission’s quite differently, however. Perhaps, more accurately, they think of the commission and its role largely in terms of an irritant or burr in the backside.

Mr. Stone, the commission’s chair, acknowledges this, at least partly. Lawmakers may not “totally agree with the way we handle things, but they respect the way we handle things,” he says.

What he could be overlooking, though, is that the state’s distressed fiscal condition gives cover to the idea of taming the watchdog by cutting its rations.

We think that supporters of the Ethics Commission and its role should not get too comfortable with the idea that the significant downsizing proposed for the agency was merely a mistake in communications.

The task of the commission’s supporters could get a lot tougher in the weeks ahead.

After all, it’s mighty hard to win friends and influence people when your job is to ensure those very same friends and people are doing the right thing.


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