Idaho’s kids should expect more from the grownups.
The Students Come First debate has gone schoolyard. Perhaps the low point came Tuesday, when state schools superintendent Tom Luna and state Rep. Brian Cronin debated the laws at a Boise City Club forum.
After making his opening remarks, Cronin sat down and was confronted by a visibly agitated Luna. Cronin says he was cursed out. Did Luna actually cross the fine line of debate between calling B.S. and actually uttering the word? Luna denies it.
Did too. Did not.
Either way, it doesn’t elevate the discussion of the pivotal decision on the 2012 ballot — a defining moment in the future of Idaho education.
And to make matters even worse, another important topic has been co-opted along the way to Election Day. The issue: ethics.
Two days after the Luna-Cronin debate, state GOP chairman Barry Peterson piped up to criticize Cronin, a Boise Democrat who is seen as one of his party’s rising stars. Peterson said Cronin should give up his seat in the Legislature or give up, in Peterson’s words, his “lobbying activities” on behalf of the Students Come First opposition. (Some choice. As I’m sure Peterson is aware, Cronin didn’t seek re-election, so his $16,116-a-year legislative job comes to end in December.)
Peterson seeks to use Cronin’s own record against him. This year, Cronin co-sponsored the Democrats’ bill requiring a one-year cooling-off period before ex-legislators can register as a lobbyist. Democrats have pushed this idea before, only to hit resistance from the GOP majority — a fact conveniently ignored by Peterson.
Said Peterson: “I haven’t seen a bigger flip-flop since John Kerry ran for president. I can only conclude that in relation to ethics laws, Cronin was for them before he was against them.”
Peterson isn’t Cronin’s sole critic. Lewiston Tribune editorial writer Marty Trillhaase chided Cronin for violating the spirit of the revolving-door bill. “There’s a bright red line separating public service from private gain. Cronin doesn’t see it.”
Is the line really that bright? But there’s plenty of gray in the picture.
Cronin is not a registered lobbyist.
The cooling-off bills pertain to registered lobbying. Arguably, the anti-Students Come First campaign is tantamount to lobbying — since the Nov. 6 referendums seek to convince voters to overturn three existing state laws.
Cronin’s most compelling argument is this one: Like all citizen legislators, he has an off-session job. His, for the past 15 years, is in communications, including campaigns.
“Perhaps Mr. Peterson would like to have a conversation about the various Republican legislators who work in areas or for companies that have frequent interests in policy that is considered in the Statehouse. Is he suggesting that his own party’s legislators give up their jobs in farming, ranching, mining, insurance and law?”
This is why Cronin says he has no plans to resign; lawmakers have professional lives that “may intersect with public policy.” But ethics is still often a matter of appearances, and this has the look of double-dipping. Cronin should have resigned his House seat in August, when he began his campaign work.
Some ethics transgressions are clearcut. When Education Department staffers attending Tuesday’s Luna-Cronin debate allowed lobbyists to pick up the bill for lunch, that was an obvious what-were-they-thinking? moment. Yes, Luna reimbursed the lunches out of his own pocket — which isn’t much different than paying off the ticket after getting nabbed in a speed trap.
While the free lunches were a no-brainer bad move, the monetary value of a City Club lunch is minimal. Working on the Students Come First campaign, the ethical gray area, is presumably considerably more lucrative.
It’s a quandary, deserving some serious discussion. Just don’t count on that occurring amidst the noise of an election season — where serious issues go to be trivialized.
Considering the myriad ethics issues that have involved Republican lawmakers, it would be great if the head of the GOP wanted to engage in a thoughtful discussion about how to restore the public trust. The more ideas, the more honest brokers, the better.
I’ll believe that when I hear it. But all I’m hearing right now is what you’re going to hear in any schoolyard.