Ethics reform initiative has support, detractors
For years, many people have taken issue with the way the Utah State Legislature deals with ethical considerations within its ranks. For many, however, the issue isn't how the legislature deals with ethics, but, rather, the idea that they don't seem to deal with it.
On August 12, 2009, the Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) filed a petition with the state to gather signatures on an initiative to create a commission that will be responsible for considering possible ethics violations by members of the legislature.
While the idea of the initiative appeals to many, it also has some great opposition in the state.
According to ballotpedia.org, the bill, in a nutshell, would do the following:
It would serve as an independent ethics commission, setting forth the criteria for eligibility for commission members, the manner of selecting those members, and the powers, duties and functions of the commission.
It would provide a definition of the purpose of the commission and how it would be constructed.
It would enact a code of ethical conduct for legislators.
It would set forth procedures which will govern the work of the commission and its staff, including procedures for handling complaints against legislators who are accused of misconduct.
It also would also enact miscellaneous provisions which regulate the application of open meetings laws, judicial review, administrative procedures, government records access and management, the role of the office of the Attorney General, the role of the office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, intervention rights in litigation challenging the bill, funding and severability.
Last Tuesday, the (UEG) held a press conference where many of the bill's well- known supporters gathered to applaud the initiative and throw their support behind it. According to a press release from the organization, thirty-five former state legislators from both major political parties have decided to get behind the initiative.
The press release went on to say that Utah lags behind most other states in creating an independent ethics commission, setting limits on campaign contributions, and requiring full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and campaign contributions.
Former governor and former state representative, Olene Walker, as a proponent of ethics reform, urged Utahns to support the ballot initiative.
"It is with some degree of personal conflict that I am here today, because I realize that in doing so, I will be on the opposite side of the ethics question from some of my friends in the legislature," stated Walker, in a written statement. "I do want the citizens of Utah to know that the vast majority of legislators have a high degree of integrity and are giving invaluable service to the state of Utah. However, I find that many citizens of the state feel that the members of the legislature receive many gifts and privileges from lobbyists. Having served in the legislative and executive branch of Utah government for twenty-five years, I realize that the majority of the items are relatively small, such as meals, tickets or travel. I have come to realize that such small items are not worth the impression that the public has of the negative aspects of lobbyists' influencing legislators. As a result, I have determined it is time that the legislature finally pass laws that are meaningful regarding ethics and integrity."
The week before the UEG press conference, the Utah Republican Party came out against the measure during a party committee meeting. Reportedly, only one member of the committee opposed the resolution which says the initiative is the wrong way to handle ethics problems in Utah.
"The state party strongly supports ethics reforms at all levels, but did not feel this initiative achieves those goals," said GOP state party chairman Dave Hansen.
Among the arguments against the initiative, the resolution stated, "among other things, the UEG initiative removes responsibility for ethics in government from the people and their elected representatives, and places it in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable commission."
According to the Utah Democratic Party Web site, state Democrats have not taken a position on the initiative as of yet.
"I suspect that it is likely that once we have had a chance to meet with sponsors of the initiative and undertake a thorough review, the Democratic Party will take a position," said Todd Taylor, state party executive director, in a post submitted around the time the petition was filed in August. However, some Democratic blogs in the past month have complained about some of the same problems with the initiative with which the Republicans are also taking issue.
Locally, Rep. Christine Watkins, who represents two thirds of Carbon County at the state legislature says she hasn't signed onto the initiative yet and doesn't know if she will.
"I am opposed to a shotgun approach to any problem," she stated in a phone interview on Monday morning. "I haven't had any real time to study this initiative and I have noticed that those legislators who are supporting it are the newer ones like me. I am still in doubt about it and when I feel that way I hold back on my support until I can learn more."
David Hinkins, the local areas state senator, sees some definite problems with the initiative.
"I think it would create an unapprochable legislature," he said on Monday. "Being a business person would completely disqualify you from being in the legislature because of the things you have to do in business. It seems to me that they are trying to limit who could be in the legislature. I don't disagree that we need reform, but I don't think this is the way to do it."
Aware of opposition from some Republican leaders, a party of which she is a part, Walker has stated that differences of opinion about specific provisions of the initiative can result in refining amendments after passage of the initiative, as long as they don't undermine the basic ethical standards and the commission's independent functions.
Reportedly, Governor Gary Herbert is opposed to the initiative, on some of the same grounds as his party. He is concerned that such a commission could be found to be unconstitutional.
Some other political figures say that such a five-person commission, and the way it may operate, may violate the individual rights of legislators. Others state that the bill is too broad and gives legislators little chance to defend themselves in the case of an investigation. Some also suggest that it violates the very principles the United States was founded upon, particularly by putting such power over elected legislators in the hands of a commission that would not be selected by the people.
Some are also dismayed by the way the initiative is being promoted. They say that proponents are basically painting those that oppose the bill with a broad brush, saying that if they aren't in favor of the proposal, they are against having legislative ethical considerations aired.
In a debate on the issue in early November at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, longtime state Senator Lyle Hillyard from Cache County said that if the initiative becomes law, it would probably force many longtime legislators out of the legislature, including him. He said he sees the initiative, as it is written, as being heavy handed, which would probably prevent him from doing a lot of things for people he represents out of fear that such tasks would be construed as doing political favors for gain. He also said that many people wouldn't want to be in the legislature because they wouldn't want to have to open up other private business dealings to the commission.
"This (initiative) is a real zinger," said Hillyard, during the debate that was broadcast live over KUER. .
Rep. Lorie Fowlke (R-Orem), who has assembled a dozen-page position paper opposing the initiative and was also present at the debate, said that the legislature has already taken up the cause of ethics reform and has made great strides in that area in the last year.
Others speaking at last week's UEG press conference included former Democratic state legislator and former U.S. Congresswoman Karen Shepherd and former Republican state senate president Karl Snow.
Shepherd asserted that "power is seductive to whoever has it and it needs to be monitored. The fox should not be guarding the henhouse." Shepherd stated that it is always difficult for the legislature to want to relinquish any power to those outside its ranks, but best practice demands that it be done and that enforcement mechanisms be introduced and implemented.
Snow added that "the initiative is not a harness, but a liberating guidepost. One might have hoped that key members of the legislature would have responded with a desire for open dialogue on an issue that has plagued the legislature over the past decade."
"Utahns, of all political persuasions, want real ethics reform, not cosmetic or weak reform such as that currently being proposed by some current legislators," Snow asserted.
While the initiative details have not been aired much, one of the provisions within the proposed legislation would place a $2,500 cap on individual political donations and $5,000 cap on contributions from political action committees over a two-year period.
Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell's office has approved the petition and supporters are now passing it around the state to get the near 95,000 signatures needed for placement on the 2010 election ballot next November.
The entire text of the initiative (and an executive summary) can be seen at the UEG website at utahnsforethicalgovernment.org.