Finding that a wide majority of Vermonters (74 percent) support the establishment of an ethics commission is not surprising. What’s not to support? When the Castleton Poll (Sept. 2016) asked Vermonters whether they would support or oppose creating an ethics commission, there was no context about the need for or cost of creating such a body; so naturally, it is not surprising that most would support such a benign concept.
In that same poll, however, Castleton asked about the perceived need for an ethics panel. This is a very different concept, of course. Here is the precise wording of each question:
1. Right now, Vermont state government is considering whether or not to establish an independent panel to investigate potential ethics violations where state officials are involved. Would you support or oppose the establishment of a state ethics commission in Vermont?
2. Some have argued that as a small state, Vermont does not have the problems of other states, and therefore an independent ethics commission is not necessary and would only be a bother. Others have argued that Vermont needs an independent oversight body to address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials. With whom do you most agree?
We used a split-sample approach—asking a random selection of half of the panel on question and the other half the other question—to keep the concepts separated. The rationale for the split sample is that if a respondent receive both question in the order above, once someone said that they support a commission, they would likely be compelled to say that the commission was needed; if someone opposed establishing an ethics panel, they would not likely then respond that they think one is needed. Alternatively, if we reversed the order of the two, those suggesting a need for a panel would be hard pressed not to support establishing one, and vice versa. By asking all respondents only one of the two questions, we have decoupled the concepts, and by assigning the questions to respondents randomly, we have removed any bias for one question or concept over another.
I believe that the most relevant statistic is the percent of Vermonters who feel that an ethics panel is needed (67 percent). Two-thirds of all those receiving the question agreed with the notion that a commission to “address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials” is needed. While the number of Vermonters who believe an ethics commission is needed in their state is lower than the number who would support the concept of establishing a commission, it still represents a large majority.
In light of the EB-5 story (http://vtdigger.org/eb5-an-investigation/) suggesting possible corruption in handling investments, it is reasonable to expect that the levels of support and the feeling that such a commission is needed have both risen (although without empirical verification, this is mere speculation on my part).
Generally, it is safe to assume that calls for an ethics commission will be well-received by the Vermont public. A look at the issue by party can be found on the Polling Institute web site: http://www.castleton.edu/about-castleton/the-castleton-polling-institute/poll-results/vermont-issues-poll.