In Oregon's "citizen legislature," composed of part-time representatives who have careers outside of government, there are bound to be times when a legislator's personal interests conflict with a piece of legislation.
Oregon requires lawmakers to declare any potential conflict before they vote on the legislation in question — but the law actually prohibits them from abstaining.
The Oregonian reported last month that Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, sponsored a bill that passed the House allowing nurse practitioners to perform vasectomies. Nosse didn't declare during debate on the bill that he works as an union organizer for the Oregon Nurses Association, which lobbied for the measure.
The Legislature's head lawyer told him he didn't need to declare a conflict because the connection between him, the union and nurse practitioners was "too attenuated" — and even if Nosse were a nurse practitioner, he needn't declare a conflict because Oregon law says a lawmaker can make a decision benefiting a group of people equally even as a member of that group.
Nosse may not have violated the law, but he should have declared a conflict anyway. Then his constituents could have decided for themselves whether a conflict existed.
Naturally, Nosse's decision drew criticism from his Republican colleagues. The House GOP caucus said in a statement that it has been "the tradition" of the House for members to err on the side of transparency.
At a time when public distrust of government is higher than ever, "tradition" isn't enough. It's time to strengthen the rules.