UEG graph of State Integrity data.
According to research done by StateIntegrity.org, states with unregulated campaign contributions have a higher risk of corruption in political financing. A state’s overall risk is based on laws in place and the potential for corruption.
Four states (Missouri, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia) do not have laws limiting campaign contributions, and consequently registered poor scores on the study’s scale for potential corruption.
Because actualized corruption is not possible to accurately gauge, State Integrity created a scale which measures the potential for corruption in government. This is based on laws in place, their effectiveness, and the public’s access to information and ability to be a check on government.
On a scale measuring corruption in all 50 states from least corruption potential to most, here is how the states that allow unlimited contributions rank: Oregon: 14th, Missouri: 16th, Utah: 36th, and Virginia: 47th
While overall scores don’t provide much correlation, the Political Financing category shows poor scores for these unlimited contribution states. Oregon earned a D-, Missouri an F, Utah an F, and Virginia an F as well.
It was not only their lack of campaign finance limitation that earned these poor scores.
The calculation of corruption risk for the Political Financing section takes into account any and all regulations in place for the financing of political parties and individual candidates, the effectiveness of those regulations, and citizen access to the regulations.
These states provide little oversight and transparency in these categories, which the study deemed important in its scale of overall state corruption.
While some may suggest the study incorporates a tough grading scale, this may not be the case.
California, which ranked 4th on the corruption scale overall, earned itself a B- in political financing. It did so by earning stellar scores in citizen access and regulations in place, but still had F marks in terms of the effectiveness of those regulations.
Even if stifling the potential for corruption is difficult, a state can gain a B- on this scale for simply showing effort.
Regardless of personal belief on money in politics as it pertains to the ethos of democracy, there appears to be a direct connection between regulation on campaign contribution and the ensuing probability for corruption. This issue presents itself not only in state legislatures, but on the national scale as well.
Transparency International’s survey of global corruption perception, and their subsequent summation, notes that the 2012 spending in the United States elections, as well as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, dropped America below comparable nations in the developed world.
The nation’s 74 percent on the global scale ranked the US at 19th in corruption; a score lower than countries such as Australia, Germany, Singapore, Canada, Japan, and Denmark.
Even if these studies are merely measuring perception and potential, are Americans willing to accept scores of mediocrity in something as important as the nation’s legislative firewalls to prevent corruption?
The older I get, the more I am convinced of the truth of the oft-repeated maxim suggesting money is at the heart of much evil.
World and state headlines today provide vivid examples of this problem:
Too often, leaders are more intent on securing their next campaign dollar than in fighting for noble reform.
We, the public, must speak up, insisting this malignant reign of money be stopped. If it continues unabated, not only do the abusers deserve fault, but we who watch passively must also share the blame.
Utahns for Ethical Government has become used to the Utah Legislature throwing up barriers every time the UEG attempts to make lawmakers, well, more ethical.
When UEG tried to get an initiative on the ballot to pass a voter-approved ethics law, the Legislature made it harder to reach the necessary number of signatures for ballot approval.
When the UEG petition prompted the Legislature to pass its own ethics reform law as a pre-emptive strike, it turned out the lawmakers had a number of loopholes in the bill so they wouldn’t have to become, well, too ethical.
So now, when UEG sent a questionnaire to legislative candidates asking them to answer specific questions on ethics issues, most of the lawmakers responded with the metaphorical middle finger.
The questionnaire asked the candidates three yes-or-no questions:
About 50 percent of the nearly 200 legislative candidates responded to the questions, but most of the respondents are challengers, and most of those are Democrats.
There are 75 House races and 16 of the 29 Senate races up for grabs this year. Republicans hold 13 of the 16 Senate seats in play and 58 of the 75 House seats. Eleven Democratic incumbents answered the questions while 14 Republican incumbents responded.
Notable non-responders were Republican Sens. Mark Madsen, John Valentine, Curt Bramble, Allen Christensen, Lyle Hillyard, David Hinkins, Steve Urquhart and Reps. Wayne Harper and Evan Vickers, who are House members running for open Senate seats.
The Republican senators who did respond were Aaron Osmond and Todd Weiler, who answered yes to all three, and Scott Jenkins, who answered yes to the first question and no to the others.
The only Democratic senator on the ballot, Luz Robles, answered “yes” to all three questions.
On the House side, most of the Democratic incumbents answered the questionnaire, while a relative few Republican incumbents bothered. Notably, House Speaker Becky Lockhart and Majority Whip Greg Hughes did not respond, while Majority Leader Brad Dee answered “yes” to all three questions.
*=incumbent but some are in new districts
Yes, No, Uncertain (?), or No Response
DeLoy W Mecham
State Rep 1
Ronda Rudd Menlove *
State Rep 1
State Rep 1
Gage Froerer *
State Rep 8
Dixon M. Pitcher *
State Rep 10
State Rep 10
Brad Dee *
State Rep 11
State Rep 11
State Rep 12
Richard Greenwood *
State Rep 12
YY Y (if over $20)
K. Bradley Asay
State Rep 13
Paul Ray *
State Rep 13
Curtis Oda *
State Rep 14
State Rep 14
Brad R Wilson *
State Rep 15
Gibbs M. Smith
State Rep 15
Douglas M. Sill
State Rep 16
State Rep 16
Steve Handy *
State Rep 16
Bonnie Peterson Flint
State Rep 17
Stewart E. Barlow *
State Rep 17
State Rep 18
Roger E. Barrus *
State Rep 18
Jim Nielson *
State Rep 19
“I Don’t do surveys”
State Rep 19
David E. Lifferth
State Rep 2
Becky Edwards *
State Rep 20
Daniel N. Donahoe
State Rep 20
Need to see specific legis.
David Lowe Swan
State Rep 21
Douglas V. Sagers *
State Rep 21
William R. Bodine
State Rep 21
State Rep 22
Susan ‘Sue’ Duckworth *
State Rep 22
Jennifer ‘Jen’ Seelig *
State Rep 23
Richard DM Barnes
State Rep 23
J. P. Hughes
State Rep 24
Rebecca Chavez-Houck *
State Rep 24
YYY (nuanced conditions)
Joel K. Briscoe *
State Rep 25
State Rep 25
State Rep 26
State Rep 26
State Rep 27
State Rep 27
Brian S. King *
State Rep 28
State Rep 28
State Rep 29
Lee B Perry *
State Rep 29
Jack R. Draxler *
State Rep 3
State Rep 3
Fred C. Cox *
State Rep 30
Not easy yes/no (qualified comments)
Janice Fisher *
State Rep 30
Fred C Johnson
State Rep 31
Larry Wiley *
State Rep 31
State Rep 32
LaVar Christensen *
State Rep 32
State Rep 33
State Rep 33
Celina L. Milner
State Rep 34
Johnny Anderson *
State Rep 34
Casey R Fitts
State Rep 35
State Rep 35
Mark A. Wheatley *
State Rep 35
State Rep 36
Patrice Arent *
State Rep 36
State Rep 37
Carol Spackman Moss *
State Rep 37
Elias S. McGraw
State Rep 38
Eric Hutchings *
State Rep 38
State Rep 39
Jim Dunnigan *
State Rep 39
State Rep 4
State Rep 4
State Rep 40
Lynn N. Hemingway *
State Rep 40
Dan McCay *
State Rep 41
Jim Bird *
State Rep 42
State Rep 43
State Rep 43
State Rep 44
State Rep 44
Y Probably Y
Tim M. Cosgrove *
State Rep 44
Gary T Forbush
State Rep 45
Steve Eliason *
State Rep 45
Supports all 3 principles
Marie H. Poulson *
State Rep 46
Wyatt J. Christensen
State Rep 46
State Rep 47
Ken Ivory *
State Rep 47
Joseph S. Huey
State Rep 47
Keven J. Stratton
State Rep 48
State Rep 49
Derek Brown *
State Rep 49
State Rep 5
R. Curt Webb *
State Rep 5
Billie Gay Larson
State Rep 50
State Rep 50
Russell G. Hatch
State Rep 50
State Rep 51
Sonja L. Jorgensen
State Rep 51
Aaron M. Davis
State Rep 52
State Rep 52
State Rep 52
Melvin R. Brown *
State Rep 53
State Rep 54
State Rep 54
John G. Mathis
State Rep 55
Kay J Christoffer-son
State Rep 56
Leslie M. Dalton
State Rep 56
Brian M. Greene
State Rep 57
Scott A. Gygi
State Rep 57
Spencer J. Cox
State Rep 58
State Rep 59
State Rep 59
State Rep 59
State Rep 6
State Rep 6
State Rep 60
Emmanuel D. Kepas
State Rep 60
State Rep 61
Robert C. Patterson
State Rep 61
State Rep 62
State Rep 62
State Rep 63
Becky Lockhart *
State Rep 64
Boyd Jay Petersen
State Rep 64
Francis D Gibson *
State Rep 65
Y ? ? (qualified comments)
State Rep 65
State Rep 66
State Rep 66
State Rep 67
Scott R. Parkin
State Rep 67
State Rep 68
Paul J. McCollaum
State Rep 68
Thomas E. Nedreberg
State Rep 68
Christine F. Watkins *
State Rep 69
Jerry B. Anderson
State Rep 69
State Rep 7
State Rep 7
Kay L. McIff*
State Rep 70
L. S. Brown
State Rep 70
Wayne Y. Hoskisson
State Rep 70
State Rep 71
Brad Last *
State Rep 71
State Rep 71
Barry Evan Short
State Rep 72
John R. Westwood
State Rep 72
State Rep 73
State Rep 73
Lee Ann Riddoch
State Rep 74
V. Lowry Snow *
State Rep 74
Don L. Ipson*
State Rep 75
State Rep 75
State Rep 75
Jared Paul Stratton
State Rep 8
‘Nick’ A. Velis
State Rep 8
Jeremy Peterson *
State Rep 9
State Rep 9
State Senate 1
Luz Robles *
State Senate 1
Aaron V. Osmond *
State Sen 10
Mark Benson Madsen *
State Sen 13
John L. Valentine *
State Sen 14
State Sen 16
Gregory C. Duerden
State Sen 16
Allen M. Christensen*
State Sen 19
State Sen 19
Peter C. Clemens
State Sen 19
Brent L. Andrews
State Sen 20
Scott K. Jenkins *
State Sen 20
State Sen 23
State Sen 23
Ralph Okerlund *
State Sen 24
State Sen 24
Lyle W. Hillyard *
State Sen 25
David P. Hinkins *
State Sen 27
Michael L. ‘Mike’ Binyon
State Sen 27
Evan J. Vickers
State Sen 28
Geoffrey L. Chesnut
State Sen 28
Steve Urquhart *
State Sen 29
Terence W. Moore
State Sen 29
State Senate 6
Wayne A. Harper *
State Senate 6
State Senate 7
State Senate 7
Brian E Shiozawa
State Senate 8
? Y ?
State Senate 8
* = current House or Senate incumbent, although some are running in new districts because of redistricting
Read the Trib’s August 12th editorial: ‘Initiative Petitions: Utah law guts right’
One hundred years ago, Montana’s state government was being smothered by corporate corruption. Standard Oil, owner of Anaconda Copper, controlled state lawmakers to the point of demanding and getting special sessions of the legislature called for their benefit.
Another copper baron, William Clark, literally bought Montana’s U.S. Senate seat three times by bribing state legislators who used to select those senators. Montana eventually passed campaign finance and anti-corruption laws that are now being challenged and reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will precipitate a revisiting of the court’s notorious Citizens United ruling allowing money to overwhelm our electoral process.
A century later in a state called Utah, the ghost of Montana-style corruption is being resurrected. Despite the Salt Lake Chamber publicly acknowledging a recent “come to Jesus” moment about the economic liability of our serious air-pollution problem, a powerful arm of the chamber, the Utah Mining and Manufacturing associations, are having their own “come to Satan” moment. They agree we have an air-pollution problem — we don’t have enough of it.
Using anti-environmental storm trooper Sen. Margaret Dayton (who thinks the Environmental Protection Agency’s existence is illegal), the mining and manufacturing “Empire” struck back at Utah’s environmental community for two successful challenges to industry permits. The death star emerged in the form of SB21, which “reforms” the DEQ’s citizen boards, if by reform you mean turning them into industry rubber stamps (a la the Montana Legislature of 1906).
Already, the chair of the state Air Quality Board, which is supposed to protect public health from air pollution, is an employee of Kennecott. Dayton’s “reform” eliminates guaranteed seats for physicians and environmental experts on the boards.
No attempt was made to hide the incestuous relationship between the polluters and Dayton. Industry lobbyists wrote the bill, sat on both sides of her as she presented it to the House Natural Resources Committee, then Dayton turned most of her time over to the lobbyists. They gave reasons why the bill was needed and how environmentalists had been invited to help craft the bill, if by “helping” you mean fought it tooth and nail.
Constituents of Dayton emailed her objections to the bill and received direct and immediate replies to their concerns — from those lobbyists — with nary a word from Dayton herself. Can you say brazenly incestuous? Why doesn’t Dayton abandon the last vestige of pretense and just have the DEQ move in with Kennecott?
Why not raise state revenue by selling advertising rights to the state Radiation Control Board? The EnergySolutions Radiation Control Board has a nice ring to it.
SB21 sailed through the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert, despite his “commitment to clean air,” did nothing to stop it.
SB21 is just the latest of the state’s anti-environmental, anti-public health, anti-science milestones that have been achieved by blurring the lines between government and corporations. Salt Lake County already violates national air-quality standards, and our biggest polluter, Kennecott, got the green light to pollute even more. Numerous government officials testified on the mining giant’s behalf at the DAQ hearing.
EnergySolutions got the OK to take previously forbidden, “too hot” waste that is blended to be less hot, making a radioactive porridge that is “just right” — in that it makes EnergySolutions a lot more money. Don’t worry, we’ll find some science on that radioactive porridge that confirms it’s safe after we’ve already accepted it.
Alton Coal gave the governor $10,000 and within days Utah’s first coal strip mine, at the doorstep of Bryce Canyon, got permitted with an indignant denial of quid pro quo. Our congressional delegation, Rep. Jim Matheson excepted, constantly rails about a dictatorial federal government. And without even a pause, they sponsored legislation to bypass local voters, using the federal government to force feed the sale of critical public watershed in our canyons to a foreign real estate corporation.
Montana’s reign of corporate corruption only ended when voters reclaimed their power with a citizen initiative passed in 1912. Last year’s citizen rebellion against HB477, which gutted the state’s open-records law, offered a taste of what is possible, even in Utah.
Warning to Dayton and the “Empire”: Citizens can strike back, too.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He teaches health and the environment at the University of Utah.
Utah law prohibits elected officials from using campaign donations for personal purposes. However, it allows politicians to spend those funds “for a political purpose” or “to fulfill a duty or activity of an officeholder.” As a Salt Lake Tribune report shows, that language gives officials too much opportunity to blur the line between campaigns and personal use. The Legislature should tighten the law.
Otherwise, elected officials will continue to spend campaign funds for rent, gym memberships, dry cleaning, travel souvenirs, computers and iPads, greens fees, clothing, luggage, wedding and Christmas gifts, church tithing. Some even pay relatives for campaign work in years in which there is no election. Indeed, the Tribune report showed that about one-third of so-called campaign spending last year, an off-year in the election cycle, went to things that can easily be construed as a personal benefit to the officeholder.
The reason for the ban is to prevent campaign donors — often lobbyists who represent special interests — from bribing lawmakers with campaign money that they can easily convert to personal use. But a prohibition that is full of holes is no prohibition at all.
Admittedly, every case is a judgment call. An official who buys a computer with campaign funds has a point when he argues that in the digital age, he’s got to keep up with email, text messages, tweets and the Legislature’s website to stay in touch with constituents and run a campaign.
But gym memberships and golf fees? Sorry. Luggage? Nope. Dry cleaning, rent, gifts? No, no, no.
Rent for a campaign headquarters? Sure.
Face it. “Political purpose” and “activity of an officeholder” are language that is simply too broad and too easily abused.
That is particularly true because in Utah there are no limits on campaign contributions. Anyone can give a candidate any amount. If a company or labor union wants to buy a legislator, it is free to do it.
That’s why campaign contributions should be limited. Politicians who claim that they are not influenced by campaign gifts are either self-deluded or lying.
We would suggest a limit of $2,500 to legislative candidates per individual donor during an election cycle, and a $5,000 limit for political action committees. Further, candidates should not be permitted to create leadership PACs to donate to other candidates, thereby buying their allegiance in elections to become the top dogs in the House and Senate.
And tighten the ban on spending for personal purposes.
Utah law prohibits donors from giving campaign contributions to state legislators while they are in session. Lt. Gov. Greg Bell’s office has interpreted that to ban contributions during sessions even when a state legislator is a candidate for federal or local office. That was the right call, even though it may cause some sitting legislators to resign their seats while they pursue other offices.
Admittedly, the law puts some legislators in a bind. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, is one. He has declared his candidacy for Utah’s seat in the new 4th Congressional District. Because the state Legislature will meet in general session from Jan. 23 to March 8 next year, that would mean he could not accept campaign donations on the eve of Republican caucuses on March 15. He has said he may resign his seat in order not to limit his fundraising ability for his federal campaign. That would leave his constituents without an elected representative in the Legislature, although a replacement would be appointed.
Still, that is not too high a price to pay for keeping campaign donors from influencing legislators when they are doing the public’s business. Because Utah has no limits on the size of campaign contributions to lawmakers, or who can give them, the prohibition on giving campaign gifts during the session is just about the only barrier to putting legislators up for auction.
One might argue that states cannot pass laws that limit fundraising for federal office. Courts in other states have upheld that argument. But unless and until some candidate challenges the Utah law in federal court and wins, the prohibition on gifts during sessions of the Utah Legislature should stand. Why? Because it is easy to foresee the possibility of a donor trying to buy a sitting legislator’s vote on a state issue with a contribution to his or her campaign for federal or local office.
In the meantime, the ban on contributions during the legislative session raises a larger question: Why should donors be allowed to buy influence at all? A contribution ban during the 45-day general session and any special sessions only removes the most egregious gifts. A donor still can buy influence on any other days of the year. But absent publicly funded campaigns and a total ban on private contributions — the best way to eliminate the pull of money on politics — Utah at least should enact contribution limits to campaigns for state offices.
Alas, that is something that state legislators repeatedly have refused to do.
The problem with doing something well is that you will be expected to do it again. The websites operated by the state of Utah have been officially recognized as among the top providers of online services, specifically the user-friendly voter registration portal.
So, may we expect that Utah will now make it possible for other actions consistent with democracy to also occur online? Such as, oh, signing petitions to place candidates, parties, initiatives and referenda on state and local ballots?
Don’t hold your cyber-breath.
Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, whose portfolio includes the state elections office, were deservedly proud the other day when the Center for Digital Government named Utah’s online voter registration service (vote.utah.gov) as one of the nation’s outstanding examples of digital government service to citizens. The state’s main online portal (utah.gov) was named the second-best overall government website.
The online voter registration service is not deserving of this honor just because it is easy for citizens to use, though it is simplicity itself for anyone who has any experience dealing with online banking and the like. It is worthy of such honors because it is highly secure.
Registering to vote online in Utah is an option offered to those who already have a Utah driver license, which the vast majority of voting-age Utahns do. Linking to that license database allows the would-be voter to prove with a couple of clicks that he or she already has identifying information, including a real pen-on-paper signature, on file with the state.
That backstop clearly does as much as any old-fashioned paper trail to prevent bogus or duplicate registrations. So the constant resistance of elected officials, in both the executive and legislative branches, to using the same technology for online petitions is an argument that holds no water.
The only difference between online voter registration, which we have, and online petitions, which we don’t, is that the petitions are much more likely to actually matter. Those are the processes by which candidates and parties other than establishment Republicans might gain ballot access, and through which state laws might be offered, or repealed, based upon the actual will of the people.
Voting, on the other hand, seems to mean little in a state where flagrant gerrymandering and an exclusionary caucus and convention system keep most people out of the loop. Turnout is woefully low because so few think it matters.
Utah will really be able to take pride in its online services when those services have been expanded to offerings that do not just serve the people, but actually empower them.
The September 28th Daily Herald editorial on the recent ethics investigation and resignation of a Provo City councilman underscores the need for a truly independent ethics commission and full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. Read more . . ..
Most of us have driven a vehicle with wheels that need to be balanced. Unbalanced wheels cause vibrations as the wheel wobbles. This condition also causes wear and tear on the vehicle and its suspension.
The Mormon handcart pioneers knew the value of good, sturdy wheels, especially the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856. They set out with inferior handcarts that cost many of them their lives. The spokes and axles needed to be made of strong wood. Ever see a wheel with all the spokes on one half of the wheel and not the other? It doesn’t roll very well.
What does all this have to do with today’s world?
Fast forward from 1856 to 2001, when the Utah Legislature redistricted Utah in what the Wall Street Journal declared was “a scam perpetrated against the people of Utah.” The Legislature gerrymandered the state’s legislative and congressional districts, essentially creating a supermajority on Capitol Hill. It is a supermajority that can pass bills at will. Wobble!
Shortly after that first wobble came the infamous school voucher bill. The majority of Utahns were against taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. They joined in a state initiative that repealed the voucher law. Wobble!
Members of the Legislature then put their heads together and passed a law that made it more difficult to place a statewide initiative on the ballot. Wobble!
In 2007 a member of the current State Redistricting Committee was able to gain passage of a bill that allowed owners of the Powder Mountain Ski Resort to create their own city. This was against the wishes of the people who were incorporated into the new city. Wobble!
Add to school vouchers and taking away the people’s ability to make law, several scandals and rumors of scandals. Legislators were being offered $50,000 in campaign funds if they voted for or were absent during the voting for school vouchers. Wobble!
One member of the Legislature attempted to bribe his opponent in a statewide race. Wobble!
The president of the Senate got pulled over for driving under the influence. Wobble!
A member of the Legislature resigned after it was revealed that, prior to becoming a lawmaker, he had been naked in a hot tub with an underage female and had paid out hush money to keep it a secret. The 2010 Legislature gave him a standing ovation. Wobble!
During the 2011 legislative session, our legislators passed HB477, the Government Records Amendment. The bill made it more difficult to obtain government records. Every majority member of the House of Representatives cosponsored the bill. The news media brought the issue to the attention of Utah’s citizenry, which came out strongly against the bill. Under public pressure, the Legislature repealed the law. Wobble!
Another bill, SB44, ended the independence of the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission. Now the commission will function only if called upon by the governor, the Legislature or the Legislative Management Committee. Essentially, this meant that the Legislature can make amendments to Utah’s Constitution without expert, independent advice on their constitutionality. Wobble!
SB165 shortened to 45 days the amount of time after a law is passed to file a citizen initiative to repeal the law through a vote of the people. The legislation was filed on the tail of two initiative petitions, Fair Boundaries and Utahns for Ethical Government. The first would have set up independent commissions for redistricting Utah’s congressional, state Senate, state House and state school board districts. The latter would have established an independent ethics commission.
Both initiatives were supported by an overwhelming majority of Utah citizens and were ignored by the Legislature. Wobble!
Our state Legislature is once again in the process of redistricting Utah. Utahns have the opportunity to speak up at public Redistricting Committee meetings across the state. The schedule is posted on the Legislature’s Website: http://www.redistrictutah.com/ and various other places.
Several organizations are partnering to ensure that Utah’s government remains a government of the people and by the people. Attend the public meetings and voice your concerns before we lose Utah: Wobble! Wobble! Wobble! Crash!
Mark Sage is on the Fair Boundaries board and unsuccessfully ran for the Utah House from District 12 in Roy.
Utahns get the best government money can buy. That’s because the Beehive State, through its Legislature, places no limits on campaign contributions. People and organizations who wish to influence politicians by bankrolling their campaigns can give as much as they desire.
The Tribune reported last week that donors gave $23.6 million to Utah political candidates in the 2010 election cycle. Not surprisingly, special interests were the top givers.
Leading the list was the Utah Association of Realtors, which kicked in $504,207. Second was the Utah Bankers Association, $472,561. Third was EnergySolutions, the outfit that buries nuclear and hazardous waste in Tooele County, at $282,400. Rounding out the Top 10 were the Utah Medical Association, Utah League of Credit Unions, Merit Medical Systems, APX Alarm Security Solutions, Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the AFL-CIO (organized labor) and Utah Consumer Lending (payday lenders).
Utah legislators often are offended by the suggestion that campaign contributions are bribes. They insist that they are able to separate donations from policy decisions, although the more candid among them concede that contributors do get ready access to politicians. That amounts to a tacit acknowledgment of human nature. A gift creates a sense of obligation in the person who receives it. That’s why donors get their phone calls returned. Politicians who claim that campaign donations don’t affect their decisions are not being honest with themselves or their constituents.
Clearly, campaign contributions should be limited. The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy recommended a $10,000 cap for statewide races and $5,000 for House and Senate races. The limits would apply to individual, corporate, union and political action committee donations.
A $10,000 cap on statewide races is a good starting point, but the $5,000 cap for House and Senate races is too high. Only 16 contributions to legislative candidates would have been prohibited by that limit during the last election cycle. The initiative petition sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government would limit individual contributions to candidates for the Legislature to $2,500 per election cycle. Political action committees would be limited to $5,000. Those limits are closer to the mark.
In this era of the Internet, technology should allow candidates to raise adequate funds for campaigns through smaller donations. Broadening the fund-raising base would strengthen democracy and reduce the influence of special interests.
The conspiracy to undermine democratic government in Utah marches on. The state’s elected leaders are directing it.
Senate Bill 165, recently enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, outlaws the use of electronic signatures on petitions to qualify a referendum or voter-proposed law for the ballot. SB165 also prohibits the use of electronic signatures to organize or register a political party or to qualify a candidate for an election.
This particular bit of anti-democratic chicanery is the work of Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, the busy builder of some of the Legislature’s most controversial laws. The guy is a one-man erector set.
The casual observer might find a contradiction in that the Legislature, with one hand, provides itself the latest in electronic communications devices, while, on the other hand, it demands that the people use buggy-whip technology to gather signatures for petitions. But the reason for that inconsistency is obvious. The Legislature wants to make petitions as difficult as possible.
The law requires petition sponsors to gather at least 97,119 manuscript signatures of registered voters distributed across 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts, an almost impossible task. The new standard is at least 10 percent of the vote cast for president in the previous election in each Senate district.
The Legislature doesn’t want the unwashed masses, i.e., the people, enacting laws or turning thumbs down on the ones their elected lawmakers have written. This legislative attitude flows from arrogance and paternalism, the idea that elected leaders know best.
It also conveniently ignores the Utah Constitution, which reserves to the people the power to enact laws directly through the initiative petition process and to refer laws passed by the Legislature to the people for their approval or rejection. Those powers are meaningless if the Legislature is allowed to put up procedural barriers that prevent their use.
That is why the Utah Supreme Court should strike down SB165 at the first opportunity. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is about to provide that chance. It has filed an action against the bill, representing plaintiffs who are challenging the new ban on electronic signatures. The Legislature, by the way, passed the new law after the state high court had ruled in favor of electronic signatures on petitions to qualify candidates.
Utahns use electronic signatures to file their taxes, to apply for licenses, to register to vote. They should be able to use them to sign petitions.
The group, Utahns for Ethical Government has waited a very long time for the office of Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell to decide whether it will certify the 120,000 or so signatures UEG has gathered to place an ethics reform initiative on the 2012 ballot in the state.
See the Ogden Standard-Examiner’s editorial and cartoon.
The House and Senate have passed substitute SB 165 (tightening the requirements for citizen initiatives and referenda) without allowing a hearing on the substitute bill or any thoughtful deliberation. House leadership pulled a fast one by bringing the bill from the Rules Committee to the top of the debate board without any notice to legislators themselves. The bill makes it more difficult for any citizen initiatives and referenda to make it onto the ballot in the future.
The bill was no doubt sold to legislators as a bill clarifying ambiguity in the current election code. Clarifying the ambiguity about signature deadlines was fair enough, but the legislation did so in a way that shortens the time available for signature gathering. And the bill goes far beyond that. Especially onerous were also the following provisions:
The passage of this bill is offensive for two primary reasons. First, because of the surprise tactics employed to rush this bill through both Houses of the Legislature. Once again the legislative leadership shows its disdain and distrust of the public and of their own members who might like the opportunity to discuss the bill in committee and gather public input. Second, because portions of the bill increase the difficulty of gaining the required number of signatures on initiatives and referenda. It is extremely difficult already for grass roots groups to organize and collect the required number of signatures across the state.
What is absolutely clear from the passage of this bill is the Legislature’s intent to make it virtually impossible for initiatives and referenda to be on the ballot without seeking professional signature gatherers and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Is this really the way democracy is supposed to work, even in a constitutional republic? If so, then we need to elect new legislators who understand that they are servants — not manipulators — of the people.
Dixie S. Huefner is chairwoman of Communications Committee for Utahns for Ethical Government.
In politics, as in life, money talks. If a donor gives a campaign contribution to a candidate, the recipient feels beholden. The bigger the gift, the bigger the sense of obligation. That’s Psychology 101.
So you might be surprised to learn that a committee in the Utah Legislature bottled up a bill the other day that would have set limits on donations to political candidates. Or, because this was the umpteenth time a legislative committee in Utah has done this, maybe you are not surprised.
The Beehive State is, after all, one of only a handful of states with no contribution limits whatsoever. Anyone, or any corporation, labor union or political action committee, can give any amount to any candidate for state office.
Did we mention, by the way, that it was the House Ethics Committee that voted 5-3 to hold the bill in committee? We do love irony.
Some members, most notably Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, took great offense at the suggestion that lawmakers listen more to their contributors than they do to others. We don’t doubt that most legislators will give ear to any constituent. But if she does not believe that gratitude to a donor creates a sense of obligation, then she is denying human nature.
A more serious objection came from Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland. He said that the proposed caps would be meaningless because few legislators get donations as large as the proposed limits. HB164, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, would have set limits of $10,000 on single donations to candidates in statewide races, and $5,000 to candidates for the Legislature. The limits would apply to individuals, corporations, labor unions and political action committees.
Dougall has a point. Only 16 contributions to legislative candidates would have been prohibited by those limits during the last election cycle. Chavez-Houck chose those limits because they were the consensus recommendation of the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy. The limits for legislative candidates should be lower, for example, $2,000.
The $10,000 limit for the governor’s race would have dramatic effect, however. At one point it would have affected $520,000 in contributions to Gov. Gary Herbert’s campaign last year and $309,000 in gifts to his opponent, Peter Corroon. The influence of campaign donations was an issue in that race.
So long as the size of donations remains unregulated, so will be the amount of influence a donor can attempt to buy.
It’s important for voters to know who is paying for political campaigns. In the case of county political parties in Utah, however, that has been impossible because the law that requires the parties to file financial reports is defective. Fortunately, that is about to change.
Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, has filed a bill in the upcoming Legislature to fix the problem. HB32 would require county political parties that receive contributions of at least $750, or spend at least $50, to file reports. One would be an annual summary due in January. Others would be interim reports due a week before the county convention, a week before a regular primary election, a week before a general election and on Aug. 31.
The finances of county political parties may seem like small potatoes. But Salt Lake County, to cite just one example, has the second-largest government budget in the state, and its officials who are elected at-large represent more people than a member of Congress.
In politics, money talks. Campaign contributions pay for everything from conventions to consultants to yard signs. The people who fork over that money have influence with candidates and party officials. If party finances are a black hole, they are open to abuse, especially in a state where there are few limits on contributions. So voters should be able to keep an eye on the money, and where and to whom it flows.
When The Tribune reported earlier this year that few county parties filed financial reports with the lieutenant governor — the state’s chief election official — a controversy arose over whether the state law actually required the reports. Some arithmetic in the law made the matter dubious.
Grover’s bill, which was recommended by a legislative committee on government operations and political subdivisions, should eliminate the ambiguity. That’s a good thing, because without required reports there can be no transparency in campaign finance, and money could be laundered through county parties.
The next job, of course, would be to create contribution limits, at least for candidates for state offices that are filled by statewide elections. Utah is one of the few states that has no contribution limits for donors to these campaigns, which can lead to suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that major contributors are buying political favors or state contracts. That issue arose during Gary Herbert’s campaign for governor.
Restrict the size of individual donations, and place limits on bundles of donations from related donors, and that problem would be reduced, and with it, the comparative influence of any one benefactor.
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - ABC 4 News has uncovered what appears to be a very cozy relationship between Utah’s top legislators and health care lobbyists, a relationship taxpayers might find troubling.
Several weeks ago, Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups had a Steak Fry at his house.
But, it seems, you had to be a legislator or maybe a health care lobbyist to get an invite.
Unless, like ABC 4, you simply crashed the party.
Among those ABC 4 taped at the get- together was a former Utah house speaker who’s now a health care lobbyist.
We also saw a former senate president who lobbies for big pharmaceuticals.
ABC 4 News was told the dinner is called the, “Pharmaceutical Steak Fry.”
Invited, in addition to several lobbyists, were top Utah legislators.
Now, with ABC 4 taping the guests arriving, it wasn’t long before the host and senate president himself came out to pay his respects.
ABC 4 asked, “What’s the topic of discussion?”
President Waddoups told us,
“Well, it’s mostly social, but health care.”
He also added, “It’s a good excuse for a party.”
One lobbyist attending the dinner, Miles “Cap” Ferry, later told ABC 4 that the dinner was paid for by PHRMA, a trade group of pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
Ferry is married to one of the registered Utah lobbyists for PHRMA.
ABC 4 News was also told that the senate president’s lobbyist dinner began about a decade or more ago and is held every year.
But if you’re a member of the Utah public - good luck finding out about it.
ABC 4 News could not find a lobbyist disclosure form for the meal and neither could the Lt. Governor’s office which oversees them.
In fact, Miles Ferry told us a disclosure form wasn’t filed because the dinner was covered by an exception in Utah’s new ethics law.
This loophole says lobbyists don’t have to report certain expenditures if an event has been approved by the senate president or house speaker.
A senate spokesperson told ABC 4 that President Waddoups did approve the dinner.
Kirk Jowers is the head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and also served on the governor’s ethics commission.
He told us,
“Disclosure, I think, is important. It does change lobbyist and lawmaker behavior.”
Jowers didn’t seem surprised when we told him about the dinner we uncovered,
“Even in the economic downturn, there’s one industry that’s still growing and that’s lobbyists.”
Now, just before dinner was served, President Waddoups actually invited us to take pictures of the catered meal.
We saw steaks, a lot of the fixings and no shortage of lawmakers hanging out with lobbyists.
“…lobbying dollars pay off better than any other investment they make.”
Now, there’s no indication any laws were broken at this dinner.
But it certainly does seem to raise questions about the relationship between Utah legislators and lobbyists and, perhaps, about whether Utah’s ethics laws really work?
Utah Republicans, like their counterparts throughout the nation, had a stellar election year in 2010, but the conservative armada failed to slay one of its most coveted targets — Utah State School Board member Kim Burningham.
The fact that the right-wing arm of the Republican Party spent so much time and resources trying to defeat a school board member — who used to be a Republican legislator — in a nonpartisan race says much about the priorities and the agenda of that cabal. The fact that all its might could not defeat the incumbent board member speaks to the disconnect between that conservative wing and rank-and-file Republicans when it comes to education issues.
Burningham has been a target of the Republican Party power base since, as school board chairman, he opposed the Legislature’s attempt to give tax-credit vouchers to parents who enroll their children in private schools. He supported the citizens referendum that repealed that legislation in 2007.
But there are other reasons not related to education that made the GOP want Burningham’s scalp.
He is hated by the right wing in the Legislature for his leadership role in Utahns for Ethical Government, which is attempting to put an initiative on the ballot to create an independent ethics commission. To counter that effort, the Legislature passed its own ethics reform legislation that voters approved Nov. 2 as a constitutional amendment.
And he supported an initiative to take the authority to create legislative and congressional districts out of the hands of the Legislature.
Burningham represents Bountiful’s District 5 on the school board, and his opponent, Nicole Toomey Davis, benefited from the vast resources of the Republican Party and its right-wing auxiliaries such as the Eagle Forum and Parents for Choice in Education.
He earlier survived an attempt by that right-wing coalition to keep him from even appearing on the ballot through the state’s flawed nominating process.
Then, shortly before the election, a memo went out to Republican legislative chairs in Davis County ordering them to distribute a meet-the-candidate invitation to all the precinct chairs with Davis as the guest of honor.
The call to battle was sent by Dalane England, vice president of the Utah Eagle Forum. She also hosted the event at her home.
Davis also was a guest on the Saturday morning Red Meat Radio program on K-TALK. The show’s conservative co-hosts, Sen. Howard Stephenson and Rep. Greg Hughes, both R-Draper, lavished praise on her and heaped vitriol on the despised Burningham.
Davis also was the beneficiary of an e-mail sent to Davis County constituents by Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, urging them to vote for the challenger against Burningham. Because the e-mail was sent just two days before the election and Liljenquist was actively campaigning among his Republican Senate colleagues to replace Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, as Senate president, the last-minute endorsement was seen by some as an attempt by Liljenquist to endear himself to the GOP’s right wing.
Davis’ campaign received $1,000 from House Speaker David Clark, $500 from Arena Communications, run by long-time Republican Party operative Peter Valcarce, and $2,500 from the Utah Tech PAC, whose board members include former Republican legislator and Eagle Forum darling Jeff Alexander and former GOP State Chairman Stan Lockhart.
Despite all that, Burningham won with nearly 60 percent of the vote in a county that elected Republicans by a wide margin in every partisan race. The voters, just as they did in the voucher referendum three years ago, rejected their own party’s position on education, choosing instead to stick with those, like Burningham, who argue for ways to increase revenues to bolster public education.
Rather than drastically change the Legislature’s code of ethics for its 104 part-time members, some leaders of a special study committee say it would be better to allow the new Independent Ethics Commission to issue “advisory opinions,” which, over time, would build up a record of the dos and don’ts for lawmakers.
The Interim Ethics Committee had to cancel its afternoon meeting last week when a special legislative session ran long. The committee was supposed to discuss ideas about how to change the code of conduct for lawmakers – a code that is admittedly so vague that when the House Ethics Committee had to rule on serious charges made against several members two years ago representatives on the committee said they really couldn’t properly decide those issues. All charges were ultimately dismissed.
Those unpleasant days ultimately resulted in a number of ethics changes in the Legislature – culminating with creation of the Independent Ethics Commission made up of three retired state judges and two former legislators. The IEC started meeting this past summer.
Now, says Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, a member of the Interim Ethics Study Committee, she wants to pursue the idea not of making wholesale changes to the code of ethics, but to allow the IEC to hear and issue advisory opinions on fact-sets brought to the five-member commission by individual legislators, caucuses or committees of the state House and Senate. No formal ethics complaint need be filed, nor any member charged. A legislator would just put forward a set of facts, perhaps made up, perhaps close to an actual case, and the IEC would consider those and issue an advisory opinion.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, co-chair of the Interim Ethics Committee, says that’s a good idea – with a few modifications that he and the majority Republicans likely would want to make.
Chavez-Houck’s idea, backed by the other House Democrats on the committee, could make the committee’s work much easier. Trying to define in detail what would be an ethics violation by a House or Senate member wouldn’t be in legislative rule – which could run hundreds of pages long – but instead lawmakers would keep the general (some would say vague) code of conduct with few, if any, changes. And in a piecemeal process, the IEC would be asked to issue advisory opinions on any number of scenarios put before it. Over time, those opinions would in effect build case law – for lack of a better term – and lawmakers, citizens, lobbyists and others would see what is and is not acceptable legislative behavior.
In conjunction with Chavez-Houck’s idea, attorneys in Legislative Office of Research and General Counsel have written up several dozen scenarios of possible legislative conduct, then asked if the reader believed the conduct was or was not ethical.
If you know the Legislature well – and I’ve covered it for more than 30 years – you may notice in the examples of a few cases very close to what a couple of legislators have done over the years – like contacting a judge complaining about a decision he made in a case involving a lawmaker’s friend.
If you get a bit bored over the upcoming holidays, you may want to play a game with yourself and circle the scenarios you think have really happened and compare those with some of your fellow legislative-watchers guesses.
In any case, Chavez-Houck’s idea – if it can get the backing of Republicans in the House and Senate – could well lead to changes in how the IEC operates.
In fact, Chavez-Houck says to do what she wants would take an IEC rule change, something to be considered in the upcoming 2011 Legislature.
In previous interviews with several members of the new IEC, UtahPolicy asked if they would be willing to issue advisory opinions. They said yes, as long as those opinions would be helpful to lawmakers and not just a time-consuming effort that was later ignored.
Urquhart said it must be made clear in any changes to the IEC’s rules of operation – set up by the Legislature itself – that ultimately it is lawmakers who adopt the advisory opinions. In other words, the IEC by itself couldn’t bind the ethical conduct of lawmakers.
The Legislature, as the Utah Constitution makes clear, is the final judge of its members’ actions – with the sole authority to discipline or remove members, said Urquhart.
And that could make the advisory opinion route a bit cumbersome. For each opinion, at some point, would have to come before the House and Senate in general or special session and be voted up or down by the 75 representatives and 29 senators.
Such action could become routine, or it could be a lengthy process, with committee and floor amendments changing the rulings of IEC commissioners.
“This is a starting point,” said Chavez-Houck, who was a bit concerned that after a summer of study no other members of the Interim Ethics Committee were prepared to offer some ideas on how the code of conduct should be changed, or the ethics review process improved.
Admittedly, the road to government ethics reform in the Legislature has lost some steam.
First, eight bills on government reform were passed in the 2010 Legislature. And some lawmakers believe that is enough – perhaps even too much – ethics change.
While all the bills made strides, as a recent ABC4 News report found there are still loopholes in the new processes.
The TV station reported that a steak-fry at the home of Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, was officially exempted by the president under a new lobbyist gift reporting law. Under that exemption, the Senate president or House speaker can exempt from public reporting any lobbyist-paid-for activity under certain conditions.
Secondly, a citizen initiative petition by Utahns for Ethical Government failed by an April deadline to get the number of signatures required to put it on the ballot. Thus, that measure – which lead to the reform activity in the 2010 Legislature – no longer has the political clout it would have had, thus quenching the reform fervor.
Finally, House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, a reform advocate, lost his bid to be speaker for the next two years. Without Clark as speaker, and a few other Republicans pushing code of conduct reform – which Clark said was the next step – any further ethics changes may just die in the 2011 Legislature.
However, for reformists the efforts may continue in another venue: IEC members have told UtahPolicy that because Utah voters changed the state Constitution in the Nov. 2 elections to enshrine the new Independent Ethics Commission in that top document, the IEC now has new powers – as does any body created in the Constitution.
And the IEC itself may decide to hear and rule in advisory cases. If it does, then while the Legislature may not ultimately adopt those opinions as binding, politically speaking it would still be tough at some later date for a legislator to violate such an opinion’s guidelines and not face some kind of action – either through the formal ethics review process or in facing re-election.
But all that is down the road.
Says Chavez-Houck of her proposal: “Other states have ethics commissions that issue advisory opinions. And it seems to work well. (The opinions) let legislators know (in a concrete way) what is acceptable or not – giving examples.”
Under Chavez-Houck’s first-draft recommendation, only legislators, individually or in groups, could ask the IEC for an advisory opinion – citizens couldn’t. Chavez-Houck said at some point the Legislature might want to allow citizens to put forward ethical scenarios. But considering the IEC is a volunteer body, not paid for its work, the commission could be swamped with advisory opinion requests by citizens who may have political or other motives.
And there is always the possibility of game playing by lawmakers themselves.
For example, would it be proper to allow a lawmaker (who suspects a colleague of some improper action) to ask for an IEC advisory opinion detailing the alleged conduct of a nameless lawmaker. And then getting a guilty decision, come back later with a real ethics complaint against that person citing the exact same circumstances. Automatically, the legislator would be in a tough spot – in essence having to change the IEC members’ previous ruling to get a not-guilty verdict.
“We would have to look at that” to see if that double jeopardy was fair to legislators, said Chavez-Houck.
Still, both Urquhart and Chavez-Houck said that allowing for IEC advisory opinions would be a good way to get around the very difficult task of trying to define in rule all the possible cases of ethical misconduct.
“The current code of conduct is good, but it is general,” said Urquhart. Allowing the IEC – with legislative approval later – to issue advisory opinions would allow for real-world ethical behavior examples to be considered and ruled upon.
For 25 years, Utah has been in the vise-like grip of one political party: ours. If that were characteristic of the Utah-BYU football rivalry, it would be one thing, but whatever your party affiliation, if you care about good government, the mostly noncompetitive nature of Utah politics should be alarming.
No political party has a monopoly on virtue, and in theory, parties should be a check and balance on each other. But 25 years of veto-proof legislative majorities and the gerrymandered stranglehold that comes with them mean that voters sleepwalk through elections at their peril.
The I-15 bid debacle should be a wake-up call. To his credit, Gov. Gary Herbert asked the state auditor for a thorough audit of the Department of Transportation. But when queried by the Deseret News, the state auditor, another good Republican, said, “Am I going to look at the campaign relationship? No. We don’t audit political accusations, political claims, political problems.”
The few facts that are publicly known show a problematic sequence of discussions in the governor’s office at the Capitol between a candidate and contractors, thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, lucrative contract awards, a $13 million secret payoff to a losing bidder, and a bid process that was altered after the bidding had closed in order to give the winning edge to the big contributor. When that state agency head says, “I just never really anticipated this sort of attention to our little department,” that obliviousness suggests incompetence; and in any other environment it would be a résumé-producing event.
Let’s be clear. While these facts came to light in a political campaign, that doesn’t change their fundamental nature. The heart of the issue is whether campaign money improperly influenced the contracting process and whether campaign fundraising is being run out of public facilities. These aren’t partisan questions: They’re honest government questions, and if it isn’t the state auditor’s job to follow these issues, whose is it?
Utahns for Ethical Government has asked Herbert if this episode has prompted some recommendations that would boost our D-minus in ethics laws to an A. So far, he’s offered none. We’ve asked if he would agree to a mutual, voluntary limit on campaign contributions. He has responded that he believes contribution limitations are a violation of free speech. Curious. The U.S. Supreme Court has long upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits, as recently as the Citizens United case.
We’ll continue to ask these questions, and lest this seem a gotcha game, here are some recommended answers. First, it’s time to stop pretending that there is no relationship between big campaign contributions and the expectation of big favors, and it’s time to stop pretending that contribution limits undermine free speech. They’re a legitimate protection against election corruption, as courts have held over and over. The two gubernatorial candidates should be examples of ethical leadership and agree to voluntary contribution limits in the current campaign.
Second, adopt the Illinois rule: If you contract with state government, you may not contribute more than $100 to a state campaign.
Third, if any state agency doesn’t like the bids it receives, the director’s staff should not be permitted to jigger the bid to favor any bidder. Start the process over and stay fair.
Fourth, no state property should be used for political campaigning or fundraising, and no state employees should be involved in political campaigning or fundraising on government time. Not even Congress tolerates this, and that’s saying something.
Fifth, no state employees should be taking lobbyist or contractor-funded “fact-finding” trips.
Sixth, stop ignoring the election law already on the books, and enforce the prohibition against running political campaigns through political action committees. It’s hard to be the enforcer when the governor’s campaign is also a violator.
The $13 million payoff may have been entirely justified to avoid more expensive litigation, but there was no litigation in progress. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that a public administrator worth his salary would fail to tell his boss, in an election year, of a $13 million glitch that would be embarrassing to explain in front of a TV camera. The only thing more inconceivable is that a boss would tolerate it.
It shouldn’t take stronger ethics laws to prevent the kinds of lapses which have recently come to light. No doubt, all involved are “good” people. But the cozy system that has evolved over 25 years of one-party government, on autopilot, is not serving taxpayers well.
Karl N. Snow is a former Republican majority leader in the Utah Senate and a retired professor of public administration and management at BYU. David R. Irvine is a former Republican member of the Utah House and a Salt Lake City attorney. Both are members of the Executive Committee of Utahns for Ethical Government.
It is time for a reasoned look at the recent news of the $13 million payout to the loser in a $1.7 billion highway building project. I take Gov. Gary Herbert at his word, that he both accepted large donations from the winning construction firms and did not exert any influence on the outcome of the competitive bid.
Gov. Herbert says that he intends to run a transparent administration, and I want to believe him.
I have been in a state agency leadership position in a neighboring state. In that department, every single dollar was appropriated for a specific program or purpose. And we were accountable for spending that money exactly as anticipated by the state budget passed by the legislature.
Had we fouled up a contract bid process, any compensatory amount paid to a losing bidder would have required a supplemental appropriation by the Legislature. A large settlement would be grist for the political mills. Heads would have rolled.
So how is it that the Utah Department of Transportation had 13 million disposable dollars not otherwise appropriated for a legislatively intended purpose? Where did that money come from? How was it shifted from the appropriated budget to this payoff without many people within state government knowing about it?
Whoever those people were, didn’t they clearly subvert the budget appropriation process prescribed by Utah law? Why have they not been called to account? (Going to the proverbial woodshed is not the same as being held accountable, nor does that provide transparency for the public.)
If Herbert is to make a plausible assertion of running a transparent administration, he needs to open the records about this episode. The attorney for the construction companies that lost the bid and received the $13 million payout has said that there is a tale to tell related to the bid process.
The governor should release all parties from the confidentiality clause related to the $13 million settlement and hold a press conference with all parties and documents present. Let the chips fall where they may. Because I believe what the governor has said, I am confident that his integrity will be upheld by whatever is revealed in the documents or at the press conference.
More important, the public will learn whether their tax dollars have been managed well by UDOT.
Joseph Q. Jarvis is a physician, chairman of Republican Legislative District 24 and a member of the Republican State Central Committee.
When Peter Corroon first tried to forge a link between contributions to Gov. Gary Herbert’s campaign and the awarding of state contracts, we noted that Utah wouldn’t be having this discussion if it had limits on campaign donations. It is past time for the Beehive State to put caps on donations and, with them, on the political influence that money can buy.
One might argue in opposition to this proposal that, having established what politicians are, all that donation limits do is set the price. But proportionality applies. A candidate for statewide office is going to feel less beholden to a donor who gives him $5,000 than to one who gives him $87,500. If a candidate has to raise money from more sources, he will be less in the pocket of any single giver.
Politicians who claim that they are not influenced by campaign contributions are not being honest with themselves. It is basic human nature to feel an obligation to someone who gives you a gift. Donors know that, which is why they contribute.
Today, Utah is one of a handful of states with no contribution limits. A single financial backer — an individual, corporation or labor union — could fund an entire campaign without violating the state’s election laws.
Candidates who argue for the status quo say that it enables someone of modest means to compete against a wealthy office-seeker or incumbent. While there is some truth in that, there can and should be a middle ground between the funding free-for-all that Utah has now and limits that are so low that they would enable only the well-heeled to run for statewide office.
So where does that middle ground lie? The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy recommended a $10,000 cap for statewide races and $5,000 for House and Senate races. The limits would apply to individual, corporate, union and political action committee donations.
The initiative petition sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government would limit individual contributions to candidates for the Legislature to $2,500 per election cycle. Political action committees would be limited to $5,000.
A $10,000 limit for statewide races and a $5,000 cap for legislative offices is reasonable.
Gov. Herbert has raised more than $2.6 million so far, about half from donations larger than $10,000. Corroon has raised more than $2 million, and he also has accepted contributions larger than $10,000. Corroon proposed a $10,000 voluntary limit, but Herbert refused.
Politicians aren’t going to limit themselves. It’s time to draw the line in law.
“Leadership Begins with ‘Follow Me.’” That’s a phrase plastered everywhere at the Infantry Training Center at Fort Benning, along with the admonition for would-be officers that “the commander is responsible for all his unit does or fails to do.”
The person in charge sets and enforces the standards for the organization. How well a boss succeeds is the difference between being a leader and being a placeholder.
A 2008 Pew Center report gave Utah an A-minus for being a well-managed state, but little has been said about the D-minus for our deficient ethics laws. There are headlines about a possible “pay-to-play” linkage between contributions to the campaign of Gov. Gary Herbert and multi-million dollar contract awards. The state paid $13 million to settle an unsuccessful bidder’s complaint — a settlement the governor says he didn’t know about.
More surprise headlines followed about a $231,000 loss to taxpayers from a UDOT employee’s ethics lapses and the failure of many political party entities to file required financial reports with the lieutenant governor.
Herbert insists that there have been no trades of cash for favors, but to focus only on that is to miss the real issue, which is a systemic failure by the executive and legislative branches to guard against the appearance of corruption. No one set or enforced the kinds of ethical standards that public officers owe the citizenry. This disdain for “how things look” is as corrosive of public trust as payola, and that’s what translates to a leadership failure.
It’s inexcusable that companies seeking lucrative state contracts are permitted to make unlimited campaign donations to the governor and legislators. It’s also inexcusable for these state officers to be requesting businesses and individuals to make donations in excess of the federal election law limits.
It’s inexcusable that donors aren’t required to identify their occupation or employer. It’s inexcusable that a state contract can be awarded to any bidder who has made a large campaign contribution to a state officer within six months prior to submitting a bid, or that a contribution is allowed to be made within six months of receiving a contract award.
Until the Legislature adopts those kinds of basic reforms, politicians and contractors will play the game for all it’s worth; there will be more of what was reported last week, and public confidence in politics and politicians will sink ever lower.
It’s no coincidence that voter participation in Utah is now down to 48th in the country. People perceive that their vote doesn’t matter — and the perception of “you scratch my back with money and I’ll scratch yours with favors” has as much to do with voter disgust as anything else.
Our D-minus in ethics is well-deserved. A recent poll showed 78 percent of Utahns favoring limits on campaign contributions. Herbert obliged by voluntarily limiting donations to his campaign to $50,000 per donor, and not a penny more. Our Legislature invites the appearance of a government for sale: 46 states limit campaign contributions, but not Utah.
Some will pish-posh the idea of any connection between the timing of large campaign contributions and the award of largesse, or they’ll claim that a challenger does the same thing. However, challengers don’t typically have the loaves and fishes which an incumbent can dispense, and therefore it’s not the same thing at all. It’s also unrealistic, and unfair, to expect any candidate to operate under a different standard than the law allows for all candidates. That leads to the problematic question of who should go first.
Clearly, the Legislature has no intention of going first. That’s why 115,000 of us signed an ethics reform initiative petition to give voters a chance to pass a meaningful reform law.
However, there’s an opportunity here for a real leader to step up to the plate and show real leadership. It won’t work if only one candidate agrees to a voluntary contribution limit, and it won’t work if one can diss the others by claiming grandstanding.
A real leader knows the importance of making a serious issue an equal win-win. The guy in charge of loaves and fishes would take some risk by going first; but if following the federal election contribution limits is OK for our federal candidates, who also run statewide, why aren’t those same limits acceptable for those who would be Utah’s chief executive?
David R. Irvine is a Salt Lake City lawyer, a former Republican legislator, and one of the drafters of the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative petition.
The Tribune’s Aug. 19 editorial (“Ethics initiative: Lawmakers should follow lead”) says that while our initiative contains needed substance, it can’t go on this year’s ballot and Utahns for Ethical Government should trash more than 115,000 signatures we’ve submitted, starting over to guarantee “freshness.”
That won’t happen because of a politically tinged decision by the lieutenant governor. The same issues will still be around in two years.
Paul Neuenschwander of the lieutenant governor’s office claims it is “clear” if we don’t meet the April deadline we “have to start over.” We disagree. Readers don’t need to take our word. Read the statute [UCA 20A-7-202(4)(a)]: “the sponsors shall qualify the petition for the regular general election ballot no later than one year after the application is filed.”
Utahns for Ethical Government announced in April that we would require our full statutory year to qualify for the ballot and so advised the lieutenant governor. Our application was filed on Aug. 12, 2009. The necessary signatures were submitted by the one-year deadline.
Neuenschwander pretends that the one-year part of the statute doesn’t exist. He only likes to cite subsection 202(4)(b), which indeed says that if the sponsors fail to qualify for “the regular general election ballot” after circulating the petition and gathering names for a year, they must start over.
The April 15 deadline is provided in a different subsection, UCA 20A-7-206(1), but only as to the general election year in which the initiative, after qualifying, may come up for a vote.
When it became clear that we couldn’t get on the November ballot by April 15, some in that office encouraged us to pursue signature gathering for a year. What changed? The statutory language did not, and there were no intervening court decisions interpreting that language.
The political amperage of the initiative, however, has gone through the roof. Why? I suspect the underlying fear is that our initiative is a real threat to Utah politics’ money culture. Frankly, money is power. Our initiative prohibits corporate and union contributions to legislative campaigns — currently the source of more than 80 percent of what legislators receive. We also propose to limit campaign contributions by political action committees and individuals to the same levels ($5,000 and $2,500, respectively) allowed in federal elections. Presently, Utah has no limits on campaign contributions.
The prohibition against using campaign funds from lobbyists to buy support in legislative leadership elections is vital to the initiative. In a state of mostly single-party and not terribly competitive legislative districts, this intersection is where good people can easily begin to rationalize their moral compasses away from true north. It’s where private interest really starts to overpower public interest — because the pockets that put up the money (and legislators typically do not) want something in return.
A year ago, it appeared the lieutenant governor was poised to determine that our petition was “patently unconstitutional” and to decline to approve it for circulation. Following a meeting with us and our lawyers (after which that direction was reversed), a highly placed individual in that office said, “You would not believe the pressure we have been under from legislators to spike this thing.”
Actually, we do believe the pressure has been intense. We believe, as do 115,000 Utahns, that our petition is the means for much-needed reform in the Legislature; however, we doubt the Legislature will ever adopt the campaign finance restrictions we propose. If the corrosive influence of money in Utah politics is to be limited, the voters must do it themselves.
Initiative is a constitutional right; but some legislators hate it and will obstruct it to death wherever possible. Our volunteers have slogged through a very hard year, gathering signatures in the nigh-impossible jumble of Utah’s badly gerrymandered state senate districts. It wasn’t as though they lacked for other, more interesting things to do with their time.
Easy for Neuenschwander to say, “Oh, just start over.” We wonder if another obscure part of state law lies beneath his smile. Does he know that failure to qualify within the 12-month window also means that a similar initiative cannot be run for another four years [UCA 20A-7-202(5)(f)]?
This is an issue to be decided in the courts.
Correction: Utah has had no more than 20 initiatives over the years, rather than the 100 that Dave indicated.
The best leadership results when people of high integrity demonstrate an impressive example of skill. Followers are eager to have such people take the lead. Unfortunately, in many instances leadership instead has been bought by favoritism, family relationships and money.
The Utah Legislature has had all kinds of leaders. Some of these rose to the top through excellence. Others have risen to the top by other means. When such is the case, the people pay the real price.
One former speaker of the Utah House, Greg Curtis, served in that position for two terms using strategic placement of money to assure election.
Curtis amassed a bank account in excess of $300,000 largely contributed by lobbyists. According to Bob Bernick Jr. in the Deseret News (Jan. 8, 2008) Curtis “gave much of his campaign donations to fellow GOP house members…hopefully, endearing them to vote for him as speaker one more time.”
Sen. Sheldon Killpack was a leader in the Utah Senate before his resignation was prompted by a drunken driving charge. Many expected that he would run for a leadership position again. He gathered nearly $200,000 in contributions, coming heavily from lobbyists. As the 2008 election approached, Killpack contributed to many fellow senators or candidates who were up for election including $5,000 to Dan Liljenquist; $5,000 to Steve Urquhart, $3,000 to Mark Madsen, $5,000 to David Hinkins, $5,000 to Carlton Christensen, $3,000 to Alan Christensen, $10,000 to Carlene Walker, and $5,000 to Scott Jenkins. Alliances cemented by money have become commonplace in the Utah Legislature.
House Speaker David Clark intends to run again for speaker. May that explain why Clark is currently giving donations of money to potential Republican members who will later vote for their leader? Or is he simply generous? (In any event, he’s not spending his money; it comes from lobbyists and special interests.)
Even before the primaries were held, Clark had started peddling dollars to potential members of the House. Clark’s June 15 financial report indicates that since the first of the year, he has received more than $120,000, the majority from special interest groups. He has contributed between $1,000 and $3,000 to at least a dozen other men who were running for office.
The candidates were located throughout the state from Logan to Murray and from Draper to Kanab. Most of them have never served before, and for some reason Clark was eager to help them get elected.
Some recipients cover the bases. They accept donations from legislators who may end up vying against one another in election competitions. For example, Kenneth Ivory, who is running for office in the West Jordan area, accepted a $3,000 contribution from Clark, but also accepted a smaller contribution of $250 from “Friends of Carl Wimmer.” Wimmer has been mentioned as a potential challenger to Clark.
Verifying all the giving that has taken place from potential leaders to legislative candidates is not yet possible. Wimmer, for instance, reports zero campaign expenses or contributions. Although most legislators did file a report of campaign expenditures due on June 15, several others (usually highly visible legislators like Wimmer) report no campaign expenditures.
I doubt those reports are true. Likely they are accepting contributions or sharing money through political action committees. Such committees are not required to submit reports with the same frequency as candidates. This may be a deliberate effort to circumvent the current campaign reporting law.
Because of the Utah legislative session’s brevity, and also because the leadership assigns legislators to committee membership, legislative leaders control much of what happens in the Legislature. Where lobbyists supply money, and leaders use that money to increase influence, much power is transferred to a few leaders and the lobbyists who influence them.
Leadership candidates dismiss suggestions about “purchasing votes” by arguing that they are friends helping friends. Perhaps. However, the insidious nature of these transactions is that the recipients of leader largesse then are hooked — they dare not cross the givers of money, lest the spigot be turned off.
“Party discipline” comes at a real price to the public interest, especially where donors’ private agendas come up for a floor vote. Curtis made a very public show of absenting himself from discussions about a deal involving the St. George airport which stood to earn a good deal of money for his employer. He didn’t have to be in the room; everyone knew what he wanted — and the price of opposing him.
Contributions from one legislator to another cited above are not illegal under current Utah law. The law needs changing. The safest approach would be to prohibit such exchanges of money. The Utahns for Ethical Government initiative petition does precisely that. If would-be leaders want to help their friends, they should do so from their own wallets, not somebody else’s.
Leadership should be earned by capable performance, not purchased.
Kim Burningham is a former member of the Utah Legislature, chairman of the Utah Board of Education and chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government.
It’s tough for Utah political leaders to associate democracy with petitions. We understand—they’ve spent so many years and crafted so many dense rules with the sole purpose of making it as difficult as possible to use the petition process to practice grassroots democracy.
However, the latest “rules” devised by the Utah lieutenant governor’s office to allow—on an interim basis—the use of electronic signatures for petitions to qualify a referendum or initiative for the Utah ballot are more cynical than clumsy.
Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell’s guidelines allow for e-signatures only if there is a witness in the same room, hovering over the e-petition signer’s computer. The guidelines read in part: “The person electronically signing the petition shall have done so in the circulator’s presence.”
That is ridiculous. Online petition gathering is designed for home or office access. It’s farcical to assume that a “circulator” is going to be in the home or office of someone signing a petition. In essence, the new rules make gathering e-petitions the same as going to a supermarket, library, or some other brick and mortar location to gather signatures. No convenience or relief is provided to the petitions gatherers, and that was the whole idea of e-signatures being allowed—to use security and technology advances to make it easier for the public, you and I, to effect change.
We agree with ethics in government advocate Kim Burningham, who stated the obvious regarding the lieutenant governor’s guidelines. He said, “(Forcing the online signer to have a witness in the room) ... makes it extremely difficult to accept e-signatures.”
We understand that the Utah Legislature’s leadership does want to make it very difficult to accept any petition signature, be it in writing or via the Web. The majority party in Utah doesn’t like the body public to intrude into what it regards as its sole business.
But we are disappointed in Bell. Our lieutenant governor has shown in the past an independent streak. He knows better than to unveil rules on e-signatures that effectively negate any chance of having e-signatures. It’s very disingenuous.
The Utah Supreme Court recently made it clear to Utah’s political establishment that e-signatures will be acceptable. It’s too bad our pols can’t accept that reality.
Some people are sore winners.
Last month, two initiative petitions fell far short of the 95,000 signatures necessary to qualify them for the 2010 general election ballot. One sought to reform ethics in the Legislature, the other to change the process for redrawing political boundaries.
Utah’s Legislature already has erected high procedural hurdles for initiative sponsors to climb. Yet even though most initiative efforts fail to overcome those obstacles, at least one lawmaker wants to set them even higher. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would increase the number of required signatures if the courts decide that electronic signatures are valid on initiative petitions.
Such a ruling is a possibility. The Utah Supreme Court held last month that electronic signatures are valid to qualify unaffiliated political candidates for the ballot.
The Legislature already has stacked the deck against initiatives to the point that it has seriously undermined the right guaranteed to the people under the Utah Constitution to propose laws through the process. Any further effort in that direction should be resisted as unconstitutional.
Current law requires initiative sponsors to gather petition signatures equal to 10 percent of the vote cast for governor in the previous general election. That equates to 95,000 signatures now. In addition, this quota must be met in 26 of the 29 state senate districts, meaning the signature gatherers must travel the length and breadth of a state that is sparsely populated outside the Wasatch Front.
If the courts were to rule that electronic signatures are valid for initiative petitions, that would presumably make it easier to gather them. It would be possible to throw up a web site to encourage Utahns to sign a petition. But sponsors still would have to get people’s attention, not an easy task in today’s fractured and fractious world of Internet media.
The point here should be that a 10 percent standard is enough to demonstrate serious public support and weed out frivolous proposals.
Among the 24 states that allow the people to propose laws through initiatives, Utah has one of the higher signature requirements. In California and Colorado, it is 5 percent of the vote for governor. In Oregon, it’s 6 percent. In Idaho, the standard is 6 percent of qualified electors and there is no distribution requirement. Washington requires 8 percent with no distribution requirement. Nevada and Arizona have 10 percent standards similar to Utah, but Arizona does not have a geographic distribution requirement.
If anything, it’s time to relax Utah’s standard.
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell has issued a rule explaining how election officials should treat electronic signatures on petitions for initiatives and referenda. The rule makes it impossible for a voter to read a petition online and then sign it electronically unless a “petition circulator” witnesses the electronic signing. This provision destroys the utility of electronic signature-gathering. Once again, Bell has placed himself on the wrong side of democracy and the people’s right to initiatives and referenda under the Utah Constitution.
We recognize that under the state constitution it is the prerogative of the Legislature to write the laws that guide the petition process. One could argue, then, that it is prudent for the lieutenant governor, a member of the executive branch, to issue rules that closely follow the laws enacted by the Legislature that govern the gathering of conventional written signatures on paper petitions. That’s what he’s done.
However, we believe that in this case, when a right reserved to the people by the state constitution is at stake, the lieutenant governor should err on the side of protecting and facilitating that right, especially when the Legislature has written laws that enable the use of electronic signatures in all kinds of business transactions with the state.
That is especially true after the Utah Supreme Court last month held that electronic signatures are valid for petitions that qualify political candidates for the ballot. In fact, it is because of that opinion that the lieutenant governor was obliged to issue an emergency ruling on how electronic signatures on other petitions should be treated.
Though the laws that control signature-gathering for those petitions are different than the ones for candidate petitions, many of the legal principles are the same. We would expect a court to construe the petition laws for initiatives and referenda liberally to protect the people’s constitutional rights. We would expect Bell to do the same. Unfortunately, he didn’t.
There are political reasons for that, of course. The Legislature traditionally is hostile to initiative petitions, and it has erected many procedural barriers to the collection of signatures in order to prevent laws proposed by the people from making their way to the ballot. The Legislature is particularly annoyed by the petition to establish ethics standards for legislators that is currently circulating.
But all public officials have a sworn duty to uphold the state constitution and the people’s rights guaranteed within it. Bell has failed that duty.
They’ve just slapped the wheels on, and already, the state may be taking its newly assembled ethics commission for a spin around the block.
Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, is mulling an ethics complaint against House Majority Whip Brad Dee, R-Ogden. Hansen claims that Dee, Weber County’s human resources director, attempted to silence Hansen’s brother, an employee of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. Hansen said Dee threatened to “make life miserable” for his brother, who had criticized Dee over proposed changes to the state’s public employee pension system.
At this point, all we’ve heard are allegations. If they’re true, they should be treated as a serious offense by the law, the Legislature and Dee’s employer.
The law has already passed on the case. Hansen filed a criminal complaint but Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill declined to file charges, noting conflicting claims and a lack of corroborating evidence. Now, if Hansen chooses to file an ethics complaint and it’s deemed “technically compliant” by the leaders of the House Ethics Committee, we’ll see the legislative version of ethics reform in action. Well, actually, we won’t.
The Legislature, in an attempt to shield lawmakers from false charges, put a lid on ethics proceedings from start to finish. If a complaint is discussed publicly after it is filed, it will be dismissed and the person who leaked the information could be held in contempt. The only way a complaint becomes public is if and when the commission deems the allegation to have merit, and forwards a recommendation for punishment to the Legislature.
That’s unfortunate, particularly in cases like Dee’s, when the allegations are already out. If a complaint is filed and Dee is exonerated, he will still be under public suspicion unless he asks to have the record released to clear his name.
Make no mistake, the new system is better than the old closed-door system, when lawmakers tried lawmakers on ethics allegations, and only legislators could file complaints. Now, an impartial panel of three retired judges and two former lawmakers, who were appointed last week, will adjudicate complaints grand-jury style. The commission has subpoena powers, a staff and a $50,000 budget to conduct investigations.
But, until lawmakers allow a public airing of all ethics complaints and proceedings, this attempt to mend the Legislature’s reputation in the eyes of the public will fail, and cynicism surrounding the Legislature, as well as the ethics complaint process, will persist.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in Doe v. Reed, soon will decide whether the names and addresses of those who sign an initiative petition must be disclosed to the public. State officials have defended compulsory disclosure of this information, arguing that citizens endorsing a petition for the ballot must be willing to accept the “consequences” for doing so. In their view, free speech shouldn’t be so free. We disagree.
Speaking anonymously is a venerable form of political expression, and a choice which enjoys First Amendment protection. Founding Fathers James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay understood that the freedom to remain anonymous was integral to the fundamental right to speak freely, and in fact exercised this right when they published The Federalist Papers under pseudonyms. They saw that their principles, however eloquently explained, might be eclipsed in a debate about who authored them. Writers such as George Eliot and A.S. Byatt have used pseudonyms or initials for names, so that their work will be valued on its merits rather than devalued on account of their identities as women. The Tribune‘s editorials contain no byline, giving them a collective, institutional force. They aren’t easily dismissed because “so and so, the publisher, is nothing but a lowdown” ... pick your epithet.
The “consequences” for those who have signed initiative petitions across the country have, in some instances, been dire. Signers have received death threats. Their homes and vehicles have been vandalized. They risk job losses or demotions when they will not conform to the political views of their employers, who have found their names by scouring the Internet. Because their addresses, as well as identities, are found on the petition, signers must accept the risk that they will be called at all hours of the day and night, or that picketers will appear on their doorstep—all because they exercised the right to be wrong in their political thinking.
If it is in the state’s interest that the public must know about our endorsement of a petition, so that these “consequences” can follow, then, by logical extension, all of our political choices—our votes in caucus meetings, at political conventions and at the ballot box itself—should be subject to disclosure and scrutiny. Never mind that, in 1896, the Utah Constitution guaranteed the right to vote in secret, and that, in 2003, the Utah Supreme Court equated the right to sign an initiative with the right to vote. Some of our state officials despise these constitutional protections and judicial precedents. Do they long for a darker age, when the test of civic virtue was how much harassment voters could endure for exercising their rights of conscience? After all, if you’re not willing to be badgered for your political thoughts, you must not be much of a real American.
It is said that citizens endorsing a petition can’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy, since in signing they know that their names will be public. The circularity of this argument is obvious. But for the state’s coercive disclosures, we could and might choose to exercise our rights of political conscience privately rather than publicly.
John Hancock was willing to be a martyr for his principles and signed the Declaration of Independence with a flourish that resounded through the ages. Of course, he was acting as his colony’s delegate to the Continental Congress and in a representative, rather than an individual, capacity, a fact which, where accountability is concerned, makes all the difference.
The choice for individuals, acting for themselves rather than others, to speak privately is all important. Justice Antonin Scalia, at oral argument in Doe v. Reed, had some fine rhetoric about the need for citizens who engage in politics to show “civic courage” by “standing up” and “being counted.” The good justice forgot, however, that we applaud acts of courage only because they are products of volition. Behaviors which are compelled by the state—as where citizens are forced to disclose their voting preferences—don’t reflect much if any virtue, civic or otherwise. (And speaking of “standing up” and “being named,” let’s not forget that, in Bush v. Gore, the most controversial decision of this decade, a majority of justices, including Scalia, chose to write anonymously, hiding the true author behind a per curiam opinion.)
Voting on an initiative is the purest form of political speech, and we protect it with secret ballots and private voting booths. Signing a petition to get an initiative onto the ballot requires privacy for all of the same reasons. Utah’s initiative statute, however, denies this most fundamental, original, freedom of choice to its citizens; and that is simply wrong.
David R. Irvine and Alan L. Smith are Salt Lake City attorneys and two of the drafters of the legislative ethics initiative.
The two initiative petitions that sought to reform ethics in the Legislature and the redrawing of political boundaries fell far short of the 95,000 signatures necessary to qualify them for the 2010 general election ballot. That again raises the question of whether that signature requirement is so high that it severely handicaps the constitutional power of the people to propose laws through the initiative process.
The answer, clearly, is yes.
In the wake of well-known scandals involving legislators and with the push of a highly organized signature-gathering campaign, the Utahns for Ethical Government were able to collect 73,244 signatures of registered voters. Yet that is some 21,000 less than the 94,552 that were required.
Not only that, but the petitioners also did not meet the geographical distribution standard. The law requires that sponsors collect signatures equal in number to 10 percent of the vote cast for governor in the previous general election. That’s where the 94,552 comes from. That standard must be met in 26 of the state’s 29 Utah Senate districts. UEG cleared that hurdle in only nine districts.
The story was even bleaker for the Fair Boundaries initiative, which collected 45,230 certified signatures and met the distribution standard in only two Senate districts.
But suppose, for example, that the law required signatures equal to 5 percent of the vote for governor, rather than 10 percent. That’s the standard in California and Colorado. It’s high enough to eliminate frivolous proposals. Under it, the Utah legislative ethics proposal would have qualified for the ballot. The Fair Boundaries petition, by contrast, would not.
Twenty-four states allow the people to propose laws through initiatives. In Idaho, the standard is 6 percent of qualified electors and there is no distribution requirement. Oregon requires 6 percent of votes cast for governor. Washington requires 8 percent with no distribution requirement. Nevada and Arizona have 10 percent standards similar to Utah, but Arizona does not have a geographic distribution requirement.
If the initiative power is to have any real meaning, the Utah Legislature must set the bar lower for total signatures. Otherwise, only those groups with enough money to hire professional signature gatherers will have access to the ballot. Or, the Legislature should allow collection of electronic signatures. By failing to do either, the Legislature is thumbing its nose at the Utah Constitution and the power reserved there for the people to propose new laws.
State lawmakers make no bones about it, they don’t like citizen initiatives. They contend that the legislative process better serves the electorate because important proposals undergo the legislative hearing process, where members of the public can express their support or concerns for various proposals. Then, the legislation must pass both houses and be signed into law by the governor, who also has the option of a veto.
In concept, we agree with that argument.
On occasion, the Legislature is at loggerheads with public opinion on certain issues. Then, citizens can avail themselves of the initiative process. But the Legislature has set a steep burden for people to place questions on the state ballot — gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, including 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.
This requirement, upheld by the Utah Supreme Court in 2004, appears to guarantee one of two outcomes: that citizen backers of initiatives cannot meet the threshold or that special interest organizations back efforts to pay workers to collect the needed signatures. Neither encourages true grass-roots, citizen involvement.
That was true for the Safe to Learn, Safe To Worship initiative effort. This was also the case for the recent Fair Boundaries initiative that failed to get the 95,000 voter signatures needed for the November ballot. The initiative sought to establish an independent redistricting commission to redraw the U.S. House, legislative and state school board districts after the 2010 Census. The commission would have made a recommendation to the Legislature, which would have had the final say.
Contrast that to the 2007 citizen initiative effort to repeal a school voucher law passed by the Legislature. The initiative effort was largely backed by the National Education Association. Its chief opponent, Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, spent several millions fighting the initiative, which was ultimately approved by Utah voters.
Like the Fair Boundaries initiative, a second citizen initiative backed by Utahns for Ethical Government also failed to collect a sufficient number of signatures to make this November’s ballot. That initiative would set up an independent ethics commission for the Legislature, cap donations and adopt a stringent code of ethics requirements for lawmakers.
Utahns for Ethical Government has announced it will continue to seek to gather signatures to place the issue on the ballot in 2012. That move, which backers say is allowed under state law, could face a legal challenge.
If that weren’t sufficient intrigue, UEG obtained a temporary restraining order last week to keep the names of petition signees private. The GOP, which opposes both initiatives, has contemplated contacting signees to remove their names from the petition.
These events suggest that the bar may be too high for authentic, grass-roots movements to place issues on Utah’s ballot. Although the Supreme Court says the law is constitutional, it clearly puts ordinary citizens at an extreme disadvantage in collecting sufficient names or, worse, encourages special interests to hijack the process.
One of the oft-heard arguments against a lower threshold is that Utah does not want to become another California — a state where “citizen” initiatives are a dime a dozen. There is little danger of that under the current requirement. The greater danger is setting the bar so high that citizens are effectively squeezed out of this means to place important issues on the Utah ballot.
As of this column’s deadline, supporters of the citizens initiative petitions, Utahns for Ethical Government and Fair Boundaries, don’t know if they met the high standard of 95,000 voter signatures to get their initiatives on the November ballot.
That petition turn-in deadline was 5 p.m. Thursday, April 15.
In fact, petition organizers may not know their fate for a week or more.
While reaching 95,000 signatures — 10 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election — is tough to meet, the really hard part is getting 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.
Let me assume in this commentary that neither UEG nor Fair Boundaries reaches the requirements, set in law by the Utah Legislature. Then I say someone or some group should sue, seeking a ruling from the Utah Supreme Court on whether the current voter signature standards are unrealistic, and thus denying regular citizens their right under the state constitution to petition their government through initiative.
The high court, in a ruling several years ago on initiative standards, warned the Legislature that if lawmakers make the initiative standard too difficult, then in reality they are denying the citizens’ constitutional right.
You know what really gets me in all of this?
Conservative Utah legislators talk all the time about constitutional rights. They go on ad nauseam about them. But when there is a constitutional right they don’t like — like citizens initiatives — well, then, it’s a different story.
The best I can tell, both the UEG and Fair Boundaries efforts are just what the Utah Constitution-writers were aiming at — true grass-roots citizen efforts to address state law in areas that legislators, because of their own conflicts of interests, selfishness or otherwise bullheadedness, simply will not act on.
And if these petition folks, nearly all of them volunteers (Fair Boundaries is paying its top staffer a small salary) can’t make the signature-collection goals, then I think the law is too stringent.
Utah legislators, especially the dominant Republicans, don’t like either petition. They especially hate the UEG initiative, which would ban all gifts from lobbyists to legislators, cap campaign contributions, set up an independent ethics commission and adopt a stringent code of conduct for lawmakers.
Democratic legislators actually like the Fair Boundaries initiative. Republicans dislike that one, also.
Fair Boundaries would set up an independent redistricting commission that would recommend to lawmakers new boundaries in U.S. House, legislative and State School Board districts after each 10-year Census. Now, GOP lawmakers (as the majority party) draw the lines. (Yes, they hold public hearings to take comment, and legislative Democrats get a vote. But when push comes to shove, it’s the Democrats who suffer in the redrawing.)
If UEG and Fair Boundaries can’t gather the 95,000 signatures after six months of an organized volunteer effort, then Utah basically doesn’t have citizens initiative petitions — even if it is in the state Constitution. So if volunteer citizens can’t do it, who can?
The answer is a paid effort backed by special interests.
And is that what we want here?
Some well-backed special interest group — be it gun-rights opponents or public school teachers or anti-immigration groups or anyone else — coming in here and running an initiative with paid signature gathers?
Look at what happened with the public school voucher fight of 2007. On the anti-voucher side we had the Utah Education Association, which was financially backed by the National Education Association, which poured millions of dollars into Utah. On the pro-voucher side, Patrick Byrne, owner of Overstock.com, put in several million bucks.
So, what the failure of UEG and Fair Boundaries means (if they don’t make the ballot) is don’t waste your time and effort on a grass-roots citizens initiative. Go find yourself a really rich backer or a special interest group that will put up cash. Then hire professional petition gatherers to get the job done.
On the other side of the issue, make sure your initiative doesn’t anger some really powerful political groups — like the Utah Republican Party and majority legislators.
Otherwise, they will pass a new law to hamper your efforts in midstream — like they did this year.
(A quick aside here. I’m getting a kick out of Republicans crying foul that UEG attorneys are asking a federal court for a restraining order to keep petition signees’ names private — if that is granted it will thwart the GOP’s anti-initiative effort. Now you GOP legislators know what UEG supporters felt when you passed a law making it easier to get names off of petitions. Sweets to the sweet, I say.)
So, if the petition supporters fail to get the 95,000 signatures, it’s time for the Utah Supreme Court to weigh in on Utah’s high initiative thresholds.
If the justices say that’s fair play, fine.
But it’s clear you can’t trust the Utah Legislature to make that call.
It’s the political equivalent of pole vaulting over the Wasatch Front. The Legislature has set the bar way too high for citizen ballot initiatives, making it nearly impossible for the people to exercise their constitutional right to make laws.
This year, three determined efforts by energized citizen groups failed to pass muster. Utahns for Ethical Government, proponents of comprehensive legislative ethics reform, believes it fell just short of acquiring the book-load of signatures needed to place its proposal on the 2010 ballot. Fair Boundaries, which espoused an independent commission to assist with legislative redistricting and limit gerrymandering, and The Peoples Right LLC, which proposed campaign finance and spending reforms, didn’t even come close.
It’s hard to believe that the failures resulted from citizens refusing to sign the petitions. Public opinion polls have shown that Utahns, as a rule, support ethics reform, campaign finance reform and nonpartisan redistricting. It’s more likely that logistical problems—the need to hold seven public hearings and canvass residents across the entire state—led to the downfall of the petition drives.
The number of signatures required from registered voters to place an initiative on the ballot—an amount equal to 10 percent of the votes cast statewide in the most recent gubernatorial election—is onerous. This year, that worked out to 95,000 John Hancocks, a nearly insurmountable goal.
While a high standard should serve to winnow out frivolous proposals, 10 percent is too high. Five percent—in this case 47,500 signatures—seems sufficient.
Even worse is the signature distribution mandate. Not only are 95,000 signatures required, initiative supporters must meet the 10 percent mark in at least 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts. That’s absurd, not to mention undemocratic. All signatures should count equally, and the residents of a handful of Senate districts shouldn’t be able to deny the rest of the state the right to sound off on proposed statutes. This requirement should be dropped.
But instead of making it easier for citizens to exercise their constitutional rights regarding initiatives, lawmakers made it more difficult. A new law approved this year makes it simple for citizens to withdraw their names from petitions, and thus makes it easier for initiative opponents to scuttle a successful petition drive by targeting signatories in districts where the minimum has barely been met.
These overly restrictive regulations undermine the right of the people to enact laws and, as such, they undermine the Utah Constitution. The Legislature needs to lower the bar.
SALT LAKE CITY - Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) takes its campaign for honest, open and responsible government to the St. George Art Festival today and tomorrow.
With just under two weeks left to reach its deadline of 95,000 signatures on a petition allowing Utahns to vote on its ethics initiative in November, UEG is accelerating its regional Utah petition drive.
“Should Utahns be able to vote on creating a more ethical Legislature? Should citizens be in charge of their government instead of well-funded, narrow interests looking out only for themselves?” asks Kim Burningham, chair of UEG. “We believe thousands living in Utah’s Dixie would without hesitation say ‘Yes’.”
En route to St. George, Burningham said that was the reason UEG expects to collect hundreds of signatures at the region’s largest arts and crafts festival, which will be held in St. George’s new Town Square.
The effort is part of a two-week tour of Utah to ensure success of its petition drive. In addition to St. George, UEG volunteers will be collecting signatures at prominent locations in the following Utah towns:
There will never be a better time for Utahns to require their elected representatives to perform their duties according to values all Utahns can be proud of.
For more information contact:
Dixie Huefner, (801) 359-6705
Kim Burningham, (801) 292-9261
Alan Smith, (801) 521-3321 (on background)
David Irvine, (801) 949-6693 (on background)
Utahns for Ethical Government is a nonpartisan coalition of Republicans, Democrats, Independents and unaffiliated voters who are committed to meaningful legislative ethics reform. UEG is working to obtain 95,000 signatures of registered voters to qualify its initiative on the November 2010 ballot. The initiative would establish a strict code of ethical conduct for the Utah Legislature and an independent ethics commission to advise the Legislature.
The governor’s veto is supposed to be a check on the power of the Legislature. When legislators pass an outrageous or unconstitutional bill, the governor can wield the veto pen to force them to reconsider. Yet, although this year’s Legislature passed some pretty outrageous stuff, Gov. Gary Herbert’s response so far has been to sign it all into law, with one exception.
In the category of outrageous, three bills come to mind. Two of them also share the distinction of likely being unconstitutional.
One, HB143, purports to assert the state’s eminent domain on federal land unless the property was acquired by the federal government with the consent of the Legislature. This bill supposedly would salve the still-festering wound of Bill Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. That the wound still is festering is largely because energy development satraps in Utah keep picking at it. They can’t get over that all that coal on the Kaiparowits Plateau will go unmined, so they want to use the state’s supposed power of eminent domain to get it. Ditto for some roads on federal lands and oil and gas leases near national parks that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has wisely withdrawn.
Trouble is, the legislators’ own attorneys have told them this is a losing proposition under the property and supremacy clauses of the Constitution.
Another bill, SB11, is based on the legal fallacy that federal gun laws can’t touch firearms if they are made in Utah and sold only within the state. This bit of loopy reasoning rests on a misreading of the jurisprudence of the Constitution’s commerce clause, something that the Legislature’s lawyers also tried to point out, again, to no avail.
Finally, there’s SB275. It’s not unconstitutional, just petty. It’s aimed at the Utah Independent Ethics Commission Act being offered in an initiative petition by Utahns for Ethical Government. Legislators loathe the act, and are doing everything they can to discourage Utahns from signing the petition, which would place it on the ballot in November. To that end, SB275 would make it easier for people who have signed the petition to withdraw their signatures and for opponents to encourage them for a month after the filing deadline. That’s changing the rules mid-game.
At some point, the courts will bring the power-drunk birds of the Legislature back to Earth from their Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Apparently, Gary Herbert isn’t up to the job. Maybe he doesn’t have a net. Or maybe he’s one of the birds.
A little more than two years ago, in view of the capital’s iconic capitol dome, several Utahns sat around drinking cocktails and complaining about the Utah Legislature. Not about every single legislator; there are many who are sensible and well-meaning. Just the notorious ones, the ones with well-earned bad reputations.
It was after midnight and the blazing hot December day had finally given way to a balmy, pleasant evening. The palm trees moved hypnotically, sending a faint breeze across the swimming pool and among the lounge chairs we had arrayed near the outdoor bar. (I didn’t say we were in Utah’s capital.) A few Christmas trees winked from the windows of apartment buildings nearby.
Why on Earth in such wonderful circumstances so far from Utah would the conversation settle on what for many of us is just about our least favorite thing? What would possess a group of Utahns, on a tropical island on a December night full of rum and nice people, to arrive at what is probably Utah’s most embarrassing topic?
We were in Havana, the capital of Cuba, and its beautiful capitol, El Capitolio, bears a strong resemblance to Utah’s own capitol building.
Havana’s was built to house the country’s legislature, which it did until the Cuban Revolution changed everything. So since 1959 El Capitolio instead is home to the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.
Utah is facing a little revolution of our own right now, and if Utahns for Ethical Government has its way, our Legislature will become a lot less embarrassing as a result. The group is a nonpartisan coalition committed to legislative ethics reform. This group of Democrats, Independents, Republicans and unaffiliated voters wants to establish a code of conduct for legislators, set standards for contributions to candidates and create an ethics commission—a kind of nonpartisan citizens panel to keep our folks on the Hill out of the back pockets of corporations.
The nearly universally beloved Olene Walker, former Utah governor and former Utah legislator, endorsed Utahns for Ethical Government’s initiative, pointing out Utah is one of only five states with no limits on campaign contributions. Further, we allow corporations to make donations to candidates even though such activity is banned by most other states.
The Utah Legislature put on a big show this past session trying to demonstrate that it can police itself, but everyone knows it can’t. The Trib ‘s editorial board said recently that even though 74 percent of Utahns approve of a cap on campaign contributions to legislators, we still don’t have one.
Until now, even if a legislator saw a corporation’s semitrailer-truck drive to another legislator’s house and start unloading cash by the pallet-load, he or she would be hard-pressed to do anything about it. Forty-some former Utah legislators have signed on to the ethics petition, and I think it’s because they know it simply can’t be done from within. So this revolution is up to us.
We only have until April 15 to sign the petition to get a bill on the ballot this fall. Sign the petition and you will help stem the flow of loose cash and special interest groups on Utah’s Capitol Hill. You will break the revolving door between the Legislature and corporate lobbyists.
I don’t want to storm our capitol and turn it into the ministry of science, technology and the environment or anything else, although that would be ironic on so many levels, but let’s try to get the Utah Legislature to be a little more accountable to the people of Utah.
¡ Que vive, Utahns for Ethical Government (http://www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org)> !
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.
And in the category for “best show” of the year, the winner is — “The 2010 Utah Legislative Desperadoes.”
The Wild West extravaganza broke all records with its portrayal of a band of tough guys who rode into town and with their bluster intimidated the locals, while the sheriff was nowhere to be found. They immediately began to take what they wanted and ignored the pleas of the people, who for years had been crying for real ethics reform, a return to civility and integrity to their state government. The people were hoping they could live in harmony with their neighbors and do what their pioneer predecessors did — look after each other.
The desperadoes exacted ransom in the form of campaign financing money. They promised transparency and instead mocked it by unabashedly passing legislation that would let them accept campaign money contributions without any limits, justifying it by saying they were making it transparent. That’s like the Sundance Kid saying, “I told you I was going to rob the bank, so it’s OK.” They didn’t want caps on campaign finance contributions because it limited free speech, when in reality the average citizen cannot afford to pay the asking price for so-called free speech. Free speech has become too expensive.
And the longer they stayed, the more brazen and frantic they became at imposing their will on the people and disrupting any civility folks had come to know. They told the people they wanted to protect them from the federal government. They wanted to have a town that’s free from government regulations, then went about imposing their own rules; claimed they believed in local control, then debated whether they wanted to prevent locally elected officials from passing ordinances to protect their gay constituents from discrimination in their communities. And while the town was undergoing tough economic times with longer food and unemployment lines, and empty food pantry shelves, desperadoes were receiving greater gifts for themselves and passing cosmetic ethics laws to stay in office, more concerned about getting gifts than for the more than 200,000 Utahns who depend on the Utah Food Bank for their food.
In previous years, the riders who came to town wanted longer school days; this band came in saying it wanted shorter school days/years and to spend less money, while the school-age population continued to explode. The desperadoes came in demanding that people live by the rule of law, yet they went around it and even railed against established laws such as civil rights.
They boisterously demanded the right to protest against the federal government and for their right to freedom of expression, yet residents who wanted to do the same with a petition aimed at ethics reform were labeled “hucksters,” “bamboozlers,” “deceitful.” And rather than embracing citizen participation, they circled the wagons and made it more difficult for people to voice their opinion, threatening retaliation, even undermining their legal, constitutional and legitimate right to free speech.
The show ended with the desperadoes riding off into the sunset praising themselves for the wonderful job they did.
Missing in this Western is the happy ending where the sheriff finally rounds up a posse and stands up to the desperadoes and tells them to mend their ways or leave town. One is left to wonder if the desperadoes will return with more money in their pockets to continue claiming squatter rights and keep on circling the wagons.
The old Western movies end when a couple of courageous folks stand up together and decent citizens take control of their own town — not a bad idea.
Don’t get me wrong. I love living here. My people came here on foot and knew the value of hard work. They still do. These are the people I want to be living around: organized, resourceful, independent. In a flood or an earthquake, Utahns know just what to do. I am so proud of our state!
I also love the way our state constitution insists on a balanced budget. The joke is going around right now that California is so heavily in debt it’s asking to be annexed to Nevada. Not so Utah.
I am grateful to our legislators who work tirelessly to keep us out of debt as a state. I applaud conservative thought, which suggests giving people a hand up, not a handout. It preserves the dignity of every individual.
However. Now the time has come to give our hardworking legislators a hand up to high moral and ethical ground. Three major problems: 1) There is no limit on the amount of campaign funds they can receive. 2) They can hand out their extra campaign funds to other legislators in order to buy influence with them. And get this: 3) Not only is your legislator essentially for sale to the highest bidder, it is legal for your legislator also to be a paid lobbyist at the very same time he/she is a legislator.
Does this sound right to you? Surely the terms “conflict of interest” must still have meaning in the way we govern ourselves. And yet this concept is ignored on Capitol Hill more and more every year. This means that little voices, voices of those who cannot afford paid lobbyists and huge contributions, often have no voice at all. Call me crazy, but I think it’s time we citizens gave these gentlemen and ladies a hand up toward ethical behavior.
Oh, they’ve made a weak little gesture about doing their own ethics reform and policing themselves, but my question is: How can you police yourself? They want us to believe they’ve got it handled. But the reforms they suggest totally avoid the three issues listed above. This is beneath their dignity as individuals and as advocates for all citizens of this state.
Someone very clever up there thought of a really ingenious way to keep us citizens out of the picture: They will propose a change in our fine state constitution to include their insubstantial ethics reform system forever, so that no citizens can ever question it again.
Bothersome sort, we citizens are. We shouldn’t be involved, they may be thinking. What else could be behind this latest move?
If you want to help them change in a meaningful way, with an independent commission to correct these abuses, go to utahethicsreform.org, get a petition, help collect the signatures needed to address and correct all three issues on November’s ballot.
Help these people up onto the high ground. In their true hearts they must really know how bad conflict of interest is when making public policy. If your legislator tells you he or she is against this, perhaps it is time to get yourself a new legislator.
Terrell Dougan , a writer and community volunteer, spent many years advocating for those with developmental disabilities and served for a time as community relations assistant to former Gov. Scott Matheson.
Gov. Gary Herbert could not use his veto pen in a better cause than striking down SB275, which makes it easier for signers of initiative petitions to withdraw their signatures if they change their minds. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with the bill. But the Legislature has gamed its effective date to make it easier for opponents of the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative to defeat it. Not by coincidence, those opponents include most members of the Legislature.
The state constitution reserves to the people the right to make laws through initiative petitions that place proposed laws on the general election ballot. That power is equal to the Legislature’s power to make laws. But the constitution allows the Legislature to set the procedural ground rules for how initiative petitions are circulated and how many signatures must be gathered. The Legislature has wielded this power repeatedly in recent years to hamstring the people’s initiative power with rules that are difficult to follow. SB275, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is the latest in this line of procedural hurdles.
SB275 would repeal a requirement in current law that a voter submit a notarized statement to a county clerk to have her signature removed from a petition. Instead, the voter could simply sign a statement requesting removal and including the name, address, last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number, a driver license or identity card number and the voter’s signature.
For a petition to qualify for the ballot, it must include a number of signatures equal to 10 percent of the vote cast for governor in the previous general election. That number is now 95,000. In addition, that 10 percent requirement must be met in 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts.
Petitioners must submit signature packets to county clerks by April 15. By May 15, the clerks must verify that each signature belongs to a registered voter. That gives initiative opponents from April 15 to May 15 to identify qualified signers and convince them to withdraw their names. Republican Party leaders already have said that they may join such a campaign if the signature count on the ethics petition is close.
Meanwhile, SB275 provides that unless Gov. Herbert vetoes it, the bill will become effective immediately upon his signature, or April 1 at the latest. The bill passed by two-thirds majorities in both houses.
If legislators want to change the rules, they at least should have the grace to wait until after the current election cycle to do it.
The Utah Legislature has made no secret of its disdain for citizen initiative campaigns. The state Constitution provides recourse to Utah citizens through such initiatives. However, the Legislature establishes the procedures governing such petitions. Our legislators have enthusiastically embraced this authority by passing extremely high hurdles with tight time frames for getting initiatives on the ballot.
For example, petitioners must gather signatures from 10 percent of the total number of citizens who voted in the last election for governor and also from 10 percent of the number of citizens who voted in each of 26 of the 29 state senate districts. Because of the latter requirement, opponents of an initiative can concentrate pressure in just four of Utah’s 29 senate districts to prevent an initiative from getting on the ballot, no matter how strong is public support in the other 25 districts.
In spite of such existing hurdles, when it came to the initiative proposed by Utahns for Ethical Government on legislative ethics, the Legislature shifted into high gear to prevent citizen voices from being heard. Not only has the Legislature almost finished passing a series of watered-down ethics rules in comparison to UEG’s initiative, but Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, has also proposed changing the rules governing the process in mid-stream to favor opponents of the initiative.
These proposed ethics bills and resolutions fall short of real reform and include, most disturbingly, effective perpetuation of self-regulation by the Legislature of unethical behavior by its members, all behind closed doors. In raising opposition to citizen-driven reform, the Legislature has also, in many minds, mischaracterized significant elements of the UEG’s petition.
Sen. Stephenson’s bill—SB275—which has now passed both houses by two-thirds majorities, will make it easier for signers of petitions to remove their names after the petitions have been forwarded to county clerks. Although generally troubling as a further attempt to restrict the exercise of citizens’ constitutional rights, the bill seems targeted to undermine the specific initiative at hand and not to the furtherance of more general, good governance policies.
There are two fundamental problems with SB275:
The first gives more time for signers to request removal of their names. This shift is clearly directed at providing opponents of the initiative increased opportunities to pressure or even intimidate signers into removing their names at a time when backers can no longer collect signatures.
The second establishes an effective date immediately upon the signing of the bill by the governor if the legislation passes by a two-thirds majority. Usually, legislation becomes effective 60 days after the end of a legislative session—providing further evidence that this legislation is directly aimed at defeating the current initiative.
The bottom line is that SB275 is patently unfair and directly supports opposition to UEG’s initiative by making it more difficult for the legal voters of Utah to express their opinions as constitutionally provided. Hopefully, Gov. Gary Herbert will decide not to sign it into law.
On Monday, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, responding to a question about the need/purpose for a citizens’ ethics initiative, said, “So at the end of the day I don’t get it.”
Could there be a more resounding endorsement for putting this initiative on the ballot and letting the people of Utah weigh in on this important matter?
John W. Milliken is president of Salt Lake City-based Milcom, Inc.
The only people opposed to reasonable limits on campaign contributions in Utah are those who make big donations, and those who take them.
The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy recommends caps. The people of Utah—74 percent in a recent public opinion poll—demand them. And 45 states see the obvious wisdom in having them. But not Utah.
A provision to cap annual contributions at $10,000 for statewide races and $5,000 for House and Senate races was stripped from a campaign finance reform bill last week. The limits would have applied to individual, corporate, union and political action committee donations. HB329 now focuses on tightening disclosure laws.
Many lawmakers claim campaign caps are unnecessary, that they cannot be swayed by contributions. But to deny that giving imparts a sense of entitlement, and receiving a sense of obligation, is to deny human nature. And to claim that transparency alone will erase the perception that politicians are bought and sold is to deny common sense. When citizens read the lists of contributors, it will confirm, not refute, their belief that contributions drive government spending and public policy.
Campaign cap foes in the Legislature claim that limiting donations will make politics the exclusive domain of the well-to-do. If that’s the case they should limit campaign spending, an option employed to varying degrees by at least 20 states.
They also maintain that campaign contributions are a form of free speech that should not be limited. That argument seems to confirm the belief that money talks in politics. It’s time that it plays a lesser role in the conversation.
Utah officeholders, candidates and political action committees collected $4 million in campaign contributions in 2009, a nonelection year. Gov. Gary Herbert gathered $1 million at a single event. It’s little wonder, considering that money can buy elections and incumbents have a decided fundraising advantage, that there’s no stomach for campaign contribution caps on Capitol Hill.
But there appears to be an appetite among citizens, who are floating a pair of ballot initiatives that include campaign contribution limits far more restrictive than the ones lawmakers nixed. One would ban corporate and union donations and cap individual contributions at $1,000 per year.
Many observers claim the citizen initiatives are driving ethics reform in the Legislature this year, as lawmakers try to prove to the public that they can police themselves. If that’s the case, the decision to forgo caps was a big mistake.
We’d describe the latest effort by the Utah House’s majority party to strip away campaign spending limits as weaselly, but it would be an insult to compare weasels to campaign cash-grubbing pols.
Suffice it to say that earlier this week, House Bill 329 was sufficiently gutted to allow Utah to remain one of the handful of states that allows candidates to beg, borrow and gobble campaign cash without limits. The Utah House’s vote to change HB329 is a direct slap in the face to the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy, which last year recommended spending caps.
This is why the Utah Legislature should not be trusted to enact ethics reform: Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar City, a member of the governor’s commission who had supported the campaign limits, publicly changed his mind and urged the House to reject limits.
Frank said the issue was one of freedom of speech. That must be news to the 45 states that have campaign limits, as well as our federal government, which also has campaign cash limits.
House Republicans also claimed that HB329 was flawed in its language and had to be changed. They point to new reporting rules involving electronic filing as evidence the bill is still ethics reform. If that’s the least that can be done, we guess HB329’s changes could be construed as “ethics reform.”
However, legislators had a chance to adopt the commission’s recommendations. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, proposed capping donations at $40,000 for parties, $10,000 for state offices, and $5,000 for legislative offices. Needless to say, King’s proposal was defeated.
The legislative leadership is doing everything it can do to defeat legitimate ethics reform in this state. The fate of HB329 is just the latest example. It will be a travesty if the citizens legislative ethics initiatives fail to qualify for voter approval this fall. We urge people to sign the petitions. Information is at http://www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org/index.php/ueg/petition/
If the Legislature’s leadership defeats this grassroots effort to promote decency in government, we really have to ask ourselves, why do we keep electing these people to high office?
SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Olene Walker is speaking out about what is expected to be one of Utah’s big political issues this year: ethics. She signed a citizen’s petition on ethics reform, and on Wednesday she explained why.
When Utahns for Ethical Government held a rally recently, the headline was clear: Utah’s 15th governor, Olene Walker, is backing a comprehensive ethics reform petition. She says she made the move after careful deliberation.
“I had to ask myself the question: If not me, who? Who is better qualified, having been both in the legislative arena and the executive office?” Walker says. “But I felt like there’s a time in your life when you have to do what’s right.”
The former governor, who served eight years in the legislature, says she’s alarmed by the spectacular rise in campaign contributions, the vast majority from special interests. It’s something ethics reforms would limit.
Walker’s first legislative campaign cost $4,000; her last, $20,000. Just 20 years later, candidates are raising $100,000, even more.
“That’s just not right for the state of Utah. And when you get huge, huge contributions, it has to make a difference,” Walker says.
Another worry: big-time lobbying. Now there are upwards of 500 Capitol Hill lobbyists, many hired by cities and counties.
“Somehow, as we’ve evolved, the feeling is that if you don’t hire a lobbyist, you’ll never be heard. That’s not right,” Walker says.
Walker says solutions include ethics training and an independent ethics commission.
“I still feel we have a great state and a good democracy, and I want to see it preserved,” Walker says.
Some current lawmakers argue the reforms are unnecessary, too broad and will have unintended consequences. But Walker predicts reformers will gather the necessary signatures and the measures will be on the ballot next fall.
There was a time when Utah voters didn’t worry about the ethical standards of elected officials. “The system” took care of itself. The state Legislature had a healthy balance of political viewpoints. Journalists were aggressive, well-trained and informed. Lobbyists operated on the margins; few were full time, well paid or influential. Politicians were often statesmen, not political ideologues. And voters were generally well-informed.
Those vital checks and balances don’t exist today. The Legislature is politically one-sided, few journalists wander the halls of the state Capitol, ever-present lobbyists seek influence by any and all means, statesmen and stateswomen are scarce, and the public prefers propaganda over information. No wonder elected officials are tempted to push the limits of ethical behavior.
Poll after poll shows voter concern over abuse of ethical standards. In response, a citizens committee called Utahns for Ethical Government developed a petition to help voters raise their voices about the issue. If you believe in good government, sign the petition. It’s the first step in the long democratic process necessary to identify reasonable ethical guidelines.
Actually, it’s probably the third, fourth or fifth step along the way. The first step was public unrest. Citizens complained about too much influence peddling, too much vote buying and too much favoritism. Lawmakers recognized the public unrest, but their response was more cynical than realistic. They pretended concern, but they didn’t want to give up power or perks. So-called “ethics bills” were largely cosmetic — designed to fool voters into believing the problem was solved.
After years of this charade, it became obvious the Legislature would not voluntarily respond to voter complaints. Concerned citizens formed Utahns for Ethical Government to move the process along. Members include representatives from business, education, government and other groups. Some are former legislators who remember a time when ethics were part of the Legislature’s culture.
Most of the men and women we elect are good individuals. That isn’t the issue. The Capitol culture has changed. It’s difficult to hold your freeway speed at 65 mph when everyone around you is going 70 or 75. At the Legislature these days, money, tickets, meals and other “benefits” fly by at 80 or 90 mph (figuratively). The gift-givers do what lobbyists are paid to do — influence legislation. It’s difficult to reject tempting gifts when no one knows either the boundaries or the consequences.
Creating ethical standards is a way to make it easier for the good men and women who represent us to resist temptation. Some object to that line of thinking, but it’s the basis for most laws, moral standards and social mores — the “contracts” that keep society functioning.
The petition does not impose ethical standards. It simply opens the subject for public discussion so voters can decide by majority vote in November whether they want to put a process in place. Voters will have a chance to vote “yes” or “no” on specific ethical standards, on the enforcement process, and on sanctions to be applied when standards are violated.
But the process cannot proceed unless citizens approve the concept by signing the petition.
In addition to the ethics petition, two others are circulating. One involves the redistricting process and the way voting district boundaries are determined. Redrawing boundary lines must be done after this year’s census. The last attempt was badly botched. This petition begins the process to correct that serious problem.
The third petition deals with campaign contributions and the disposition of leftover campaign funds. It wasn’t a problem when campaign costs were small, but in recent years the cost of conducting campaigns — even for minor offices — has skyrocketed. The petition is the first step in making sure campaign funding mechanisms are not abused.
You can sign none or all of these petitions. Each deserves support.
In addition, the Legislature may offer a constitutional amendment to create some sort of legislative committee to look at ethical standards. This is simply a cynical stalling tactic to negate the more practical citizen petition. Make no mistake about it, if the petition were not circulating, the Legislature would not act. And if — when the April deadline comes — the petition doesn’t have enough signatures, you can be sure the legislative effort will fade away … or be altered into meaninglessness.
Add your voice to the many voices asking for ethical behavior by elected officials. Sign the petition!
G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words. He is a long-time observer of the political scene. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University.
Faced with the real threat of several citizen initiatives concerning legislative ethics reform likely making it to a vote in November, it comes as no surprise that the top priority of the Utah Legislature is to pass its own set of bills regulating legislators’ ethical responsibilities.
Although budget deficits, taxes and health care issues are dominant, Republican House Speaker Dave Clark’s opening remarks zeroed in on the immediate need for ethics reform. It seems a series of ethics bills, which are preapproved by the House of Representatives, will be introduced this legislative session as something Clark said would “ensure that our actions on behalf of the public are above reproach.” But the Legislature just now announcing its plan to enact ethical legislation as a Constitutional Amendment sounds a bit unethical, especially since ethics reform has been an ongoing request of the citizens of Utah for years.
Requests that were previously easy to ignore are now imperative to a legislative body facing the unacceptable possibility of having to comply with laws created directly by the people. Unfortunately, this sudden enlightenment serves as proof for the theory that citizen initiatives act as a force to propel lawmakers to listen to their constituents.
Utahns for Ethical Government is a bipartisan group trying to gather 95,000 signatures by April 15 for an initiative calling for the creation of a legislative code of conduct and an independent ethics commission. Apparently, the Legislature now agrees there needs to be ethical reform, but it wants to decide what and how much is appropriate, and it wants to beat the citizen initiatives to the punch.
The Senate Joint Resolution 3 was finally posted Thursday for public view. The resolution calls for the establishment of an independent commission and defines the organization, structure, responsibilities and power of the commission. Although the bill meekly concedes the fact that an independent commission is necessary, it seems as though lawmakers are still not listening. Several legislators’ code-of-conduct requests made by the citizen initiative are missing or drastically different from S.J.R. 3.
UEG’s citizen initiative calls for a complete ban on gifts from lobbyists. This will act as a guarantee that our elected officials are listening equally to all sides of an issue, which they are paid to do.
The initiative also calls for a complete ban on legislators’ and candidates’ ability to appropriate campaign funds for their personal use. This means lawmakers must rely on their public paid income just like other public employees.
It also bans legislators from becoming paid lobbyists for at least two years after leaving office, limits campaign contributions to $2,500 per person or $5,000 per political action committee and bans the giving of campaign funds to other candidates.
The citizen initiative does have some questionable provisions. Mainly, the sponsors have set themselves up as the alternative vote for the commission member candidates if the legislation leadership does not unanimously agree.
Kim Burningham, chairman of UEG, said this provision should act as a promoter to compel the leaders to work together in choosing 20 individuals from which five would be drawn.
“We hope it will never be used,” Burningham said. “It’s intended to never be used. What if the leadership refuses to do it? Well then, we entered a backup procedure.”
But even with this unusual term, UEG’s initiative is packed with code-of-conduct requirements that are popular with Utah citizens. Burningham said UEG has a lot of questions, especially with the legislation’s new revelation of a constitutional amendment, which he said doesn’t seem to be justified. Rather, he said, it’s like the Legislature is doing it for the appearance of doing something great, but if what it is doing only implements a weak commission form, it’s all show without substance.
If the Legislature truly wants to assure the public of its stellar conduct, it needs to address all of our concerns. Instead, the legislators have predictably chosen to only address the issues that don’t hurt them where it counts: their pocketbook.
What do you do when there is a fast-approaching election with two candidates? Candidate A has an undistinguished past with little public service or involvement, has been a lobbyist and may have a shady past. Candidate B is squeaky-clean, regularly attends local and county political meetings, and promotes high moral values. Give up? If you live in Southern Utah, obviously, you vote for the Republican!
Now, before the truth begins to offend you, consider that during the last general election 79 percent of Washington County residents voted straight Republican Party. Clearly, there has to be some sort of political discernability. That is why several recent proposals for independent ethics commissions and code-of-conduct overseers for Utah legislators seem so logical and practical.
The commission should do what non-discreet Utah voters typically do year-in and year-out: Check to see how the politicos are behaving, hold them accountable, and then make their actions transparently public. As The Spectrum has reported, this move has made current politicians quite nervous. But it shouldn’t. If politicians are acting appropriately, and if they are honest, they should welcome scrutiny.
Three groups heading in this direction and gaining momentum are the Peoples Right LLC, Fair Boundaries Initiative and Utahns for Ethical Government. UEG takes aim at eliminating conflicts of interest while in office, especially the giving and receiving of money from lobbyists during and after office. Their efforts strive to keep citizens at the forefront of legislative decisions rather than being puppets for big business or other causes.
Political oversight appears to have overwhelming support from former/retired politicians. Most of these aforementioned folks have little to gain, yet, they appear to see the need to encourage current politicians to always act responsibly.
Here’s another compelling reason.
Energy Solutions (the same basketball arena sponsors of the Utah Jazz) is in the business of disposing depleted uranium. Currently, they are attempting to bring in more of it from Italy and are getting strong objections from the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah and legal challenges from a federal appeals court in Denver. Depleted uranium is already buried here in Utah. But why ship it here? Why not bury it in Italy?
Presumably, because of the nuclear fallout fiasco of the 1950s, Utah Reps. Jim Matheson and Jason Chaffetz have co-sponsored legislation to ban most radioactive waste. Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune reports, “Rep. Rob Bishop, a former lobbyist for (Energy Solutions) has not supported the legislation.” Morally, Bishop should be recused from debating and, especially, voting on this issue. An ethics commission on the federal could ensure that this happens.
I don’t, necessarily, support any particular oversight committees. However, I do strongly support the notion that elected public officials need to have a constant vigilance over their political actions.
Regardless of your political party affiliation, putting political oversight into place like this is a solid idea.
Glenn Mesa is a resident of St. George and a member of The Spectrum & Daily News Writers Group.
State Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, has threatened to resign from office if the ethics initiative sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government becomes law.
The initiative, according to Hillyard, allows three complainants to charge him with an ethics violation, and then to subpoena any confidential record they want from his attorney-client files. Concerns for the privacy of his clients and the business of his firm apparently have overthrown his desire for continued service as a public official.
Hillyard’s concerns have no basis in fact, however. The initiative does not abolish the attorney-client privilege or any other safeguard to confidentiality. Nor does it give unlimited subpoena power to those who bring an ethics charge against a particular legislator.
Subpoenas “may” be issued by the executive director of the ethics commission, at the request of complainants, but only as the director may deem “necessary” to the disciplinary process. This determination of “necessity” is made independently by the commission through its executive director, and not by the complainants themselves.
The initiative’s procedure in this regard incorporates by reference the current statute which governs legislative subpoenas, Chapter 14 of Title 36 of the Utah Code, as well as Rule 45 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, a statute and rule which have been on the books for decades. Both the statute and the rule provide for judicial protection where subpoenas may be issued in violation of an evidentiary privilege or the right to privacy.
Why, then, does Hillyard continue to distort the facts of our initiative and pretend that a subpoena will disrupt his law practice and force him from office? If he seriously feared subpoenas in furtherance of legislative investigations, he should have (but has not) asked for the abolition of the statute and rule in question long before now.
But Hillyard (who, as a lawyer, undoubtedly has quashed not a few subpoenas in his time) does not seriously fear subpoenas. He fears, instead, that subpoenas will be used seriously by a citizens commission to investigate allegations of ethical impropriety. He prefers, therefore, to keep the subpoena power with his friends in the Senate, friends who, because of their shared interest in dodging scrutiny, will never issue a subpoena that might lead to meaningful disclosures.
Indeed, if there has ever been real accountability through an ethics investigation in the Senate (notwithstanding recent reports of misconduct which clearly warrant an inquiry), it escapes memory.
The real question is who shall decide what information, in the event of an ethics complaint, is discoverable, by subpoena or otherwise. Shall we continue to allow the senators and representatives to be judges in their own causes, telling us what they will or won’t reveal about their involvement in a controversy over ethics? Or shall we have an independent decision-maker who, after listening to the arguments of those who seek discovery and the legislators opposing it, serves as a disinterested arbiter of that dispute?
Far from revealing a problem with our initiative, Hillyard’s “subpoena issue” underscores the need for an independent ethics commission.
Hillyard can’t deny the utility of subpoenas as a tool for transparency, since they commonly are used for the gathering of information. By legislative edict, every other officer and employee of state government is subject to investigation when accused of malfeasance in office. But these public officials aren’t making headlines by threatening to quit because of the contingency of a subpoena. Moreover, the Legislature has passed laws which require disclosures from ordinary citizens in numerous contexts. Hillyard and his colleagues, however, apparently believe that this type of law — which they have made for others — shouldn’t apply to legislators themselves.
This attitude — that legislators somehow are “special” and that their private needs should take precedence over the public interest — must be smashed. Legislators are elected to serve, and personal interests, accordingly, must bend to the common good as our first priority.
If they don’t keep these priorities straight, if they are not endowed with that spirit of selfless service which traditionally has filled those who view public office as a sacred trust, then by all means they should resign. Our state does not want for men and women of principle who will stand in their place.
Alan L. Smith is an attorney and a member of the executive committee of Utahns for Ethical Government.
As volunteers go door-to-door asking neighbors to sign the ethics initiative petition, the response is overwhelmingly positive. Most are eager to see ethical improvement in our Legislature.
On the other hand, some currently-serving legislators and entrenched politicians are opposed. Recently, the Clipper published a column by Todd Weiler which illustrates faulty arguments used to discourage passage of the ethics initiative.
Some politicians, including Weiler, say recently passed legislation on ethics reform is “sweeping.” Hardly! The Salt Lake Tribune called it “baby steps.” The Ogden Standard Examiner described the legislators as “experts at excusing bad ethics” and graded them with a “D.” The Deseret News called legislative actions “modest steps” and promises of ethics reform “unfulfilled.”
For whatever good they did, I applaud our Legislature. But the “baby steps” are insufficient.
For instance, as Weiler says the legislators did pass SB 162; some claim it will limit legislators using campaign funds for personal use (an unfortunately frequently occurring practice). The complete picture, however, is SB 162 does nothing about current legislators and impacts only legislators who are no longer in office. Sitting legislators can continue to spend their campaign funds precisely as they desire.
In another case, many were delighted the Legislature passed HB 345. The public was led to believe legislators could no longer walk out the door and start lobbying. Within weeks after the session, we discovered the loophole: it does not apply to former legislators lobbying for any business not primarily engaged in lobbying. In other words, they can lobby for special interests as long as they don’t join a lobbying firm. The public again had been hoodwinked.
Entrenched politicians may have passed a few bills, but it was primarily cosmetic. We need genuine ethics reform.
Like Weiler, politicians point to an Ethics Committee established by the Legislature and say they have met all year and have made suggestions. Note this committee recently ended their 2009 service with only one recommendation: an ethics commission. Sound good? Perhaps, until we learn this commission can only act by a 4-1 vote. (What happened to majority rule?) Or that the Commission meets in secret? Or that no regular citizens are to be members of the commission? Or most importantly, their recommendation did not address campaign fund use, lobbying restrictions, conflict of interest disclosure, etc. More baby steps.
Weiler claims our proposed ethics initiative commission treats a legislator guilty until proven innocent. Not true. The proposed commission does not determine guilt; it only makes recommendations to the Legislature which must deal with them openly. The commission is not a judicial body.
Weiler complains that the proposed commission would allow three citizens to bring a complaint. And what is the harm? One person can already bring a complaint against any city or county official. One person can bring a complaint against members of the judiciary. One citizen can bring a complaint against you! What is so special about the Legislature only allowing sitting legislators to bring complaints (the current practice)?
Entrenched politicians are using specious and invalid arguments to stop the ethics initiative — arguments like the above that are superficial.
Amazingly, Weiler claims our ethics initiative “removes responsibility for ethics from the people.” Exactly the opposite is true. Currently, only the Legislature itself can bring a charge against its peers; this seldom happens. Legislators are understandably reticent to criticize peers whose vote they will later need.
In the proposed ethics initiative an independent citizens commission will add an impartial eye to the process and bring greater objectivity and ethical conduct to the Legislature.
Some entrenched politicians read the initiative and are nervous. I wonder why?
The Daily Herald stands alone among major Utah media in its editorial opposition to the ethics reform initiative now in circulation for signatures. The paper’s latest salvo attacks the initiative for being unfair to legislators. Fairness, we agree, is a fundamental American value. But the editorial is wrong to claim that the initiative is unfair to anyone.
Three parties are affected in any complaint about legislative ethics: the accused legislator, the complainant, and the public at large. The Herald is wrong about unfairness to legislators and completely ignored the matter of fairness to anyone else. Let’s look at an infamous example — from Utah County: the legislators who got a college administrator to use state resources to build a Republican Party parade float. Only legislators can file an ethics complaint. No legislator officially even questioned the propriety of this unethical scam. Where’s any fairness to the public in that?
The ethics initiative would give any three citizens the opportunity to file such a complaint, but unless they have personal knowledge of what actually transpired or who was involved, any complaint is likely to be factually incomplete. That’s why, in fairness, complainants are given the opportunity to flesh out additional facts in the initial investigation period. They have the burden of carrying the complaint forward and must establish that all of the component elements of an ethics violation occurred. The evidence must be sufficient to be persuasive and believable.
That is a heavy burden for the complainants to bear. It cannot rest on rumor and hearsay. As the ethics hearings last year demonstrated, there are many disincentives for witnesses to step forward and spill the beans — the biggest being the fear of legislative retribution. Subpoenas are the only means of getting unwilling witnesses to testify, and can only be enforced by a district court. If a subpoena is inappropriate in its subject-matter or scope, the court will quash it. This is nothing new. It is the same subpoena authority that the legislative ethics committees already possess.
The initiative’s complaint process has two stages, one preliminary and one formal. The preliminary stage is solely investigative, informal, and involves no hearings. The initiative reads: “In furtherance of the investigation contemplated under this section … the executive director may issue subpoenas for the production of documents and to compel the attendance and testimony of witnesses by deposition or otherwise.” No language precludes subpoenas being issued at the request of either side; the executive director is neutral. The accused legislator “may participate informally, but shall have no formal rights of participation during this stage of the proceeding.”
This is the phrase that prompted the editorial’s claim that, maybe, “the accused is allowed to stand in the hallway outside the meeting room and yell through the door.” This is nonsense.
This newspaper was not present for last year’s ethics hearings where the complainants were neither allowed to be in the room nor yell through the door. Only the accused legislator and his lawyer were at the table with the committee. Since no one else was allowed to observe, the press was dependent on that non-neutral lawyer for briefing on each witness’s testimony. The initiative is drafted to correct that fairness deficiency. In the event the complaint moves to the formal stage where hearings are required, both sides have full rights of formal participation, including cross-examination of witnesses by attorneys for the parties. This is hardly the stuff of a Star Chamber, as this newspaper erroneously characterized the process.
• David R. Irvine is a Salt Lake City lawyer, a former Republican legislator and a drafter of the initiative.
Judging from quotations attributed to them in a recent Bob Bernick column, Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) and Rep. Kevin Garn (R-Layton) do not like the ethics reform initiative we drafted. Nobody likes an “outsider” (if Utah voters can be called outsiders to the people’s business) to come in and clean house for them. But after years of missed opportunities by the Legislature, it’s up to the voters to enact ethics reforms that really mean something.
These two legislators appear mainly to be worried about two things: First, that the ethics initiative will keep legislators from getting jobs they want, and second, that it offends “due process” and will result in complaints that will ruin legislative reputations. We respectfully disagree. Legislators who would turn the chambers of the House or Senate into a “job fair” are putting the integrity of the lawmaking process at great risk. But for their status as legislators would they be getting the job offer in question? Is the job being offered to ensure voting support for an employer’s interests?
“Due process” means adequate notice and a fair hearing before an impartial tribunal. The initiative more than satisfies these standards. In particular circumstances, legislators could obtain a “safe harbor” opinion that immunizes them from charges of misconduct.
While state officials in the executive branch, county and municipal employees and judges may be charged with ethical improprieties by a single complainant, the initiative takes three to file a complaint against a legislator and those three will have to bear the burden of financing their own case. Complaints are screened confidentially by an independent commission so that frivolous filings can be dismissed before they become known to the general public. If the charges are substantial, the legislator is entitled to a hearing before an impartial tribunal, with full rights of participation and legal counsel of his or her choosing at public expense.
If the complainants offer enough evidence of misconduct to be believable unless rebutted, then (and only then) the legislator must show that his conduct did not violate any ethical rule. This allocation of the burden of proof is appropriate because ethics hearings are not criminal proceedings; they are similar to the treatment of corporate officers and directors under existing law. A business partner or corporate director may argue that his conflicts and self-dealing have not injured his company or shareholders, but how is this argument to be disproved? In these instances, most, if not all, of the evidence resides with the fiduciary, and hence it is currently required that he disprove the harm. Many candidates for office argue that government should be run more like a business. We believe there is truth to that, and therefore we apply to legislators the same standards of proof by which the ethical conduct of business fiduciaries has been judged from time immemorial.
Under current rules, only legislators may file ethics complaints. Because there are enormous incentives against legislators challenging the conduct of their colleagues, and because the existing process virtually guarantees that peer review of such complaints will go nowhere, legislators who want to get chalk on their shoes from pushing the boundary lines have every reason to try.
The number of ethics investigations in 30 years can be counted on one hand. Unless a legislator admits misconduct, nothing happens. The most blatant abuses of office go unchallenged, such as: A legislator pressures the governor to fire the director of a state agency investigating fraud claims against the legislator’s friend; another legislator pressures university officials to build a political party’s parade float with public funds; another legislator pressures a judge who has decided a case against the legislator’s friend; or a legislator pressures a staff fiscal analyst to give a competing financial analysis on a public referendum issue to suit that legislator’s personal viewpoint.
Finally, it is suggested that this initiative will encourage current legislators to leave office and discourage good people from running. If current legislators are not willing to serve with an eye single to the interest of the people, we are confident that there are many good citizens willing to selflessly serve in their place. Most people who seek public office do so because they want to make a constructive difference in what goes on. Gresham’s Law in economics holds that bad money drives out good money. There is a similar principle in politics, and the ethics reform initiative is carefully designed to keep honest people honest at our state Capitol.
Kim R. Burningham, chairman, Utahns for Ethical Government
Utahns are preparing two initiatives for the 2010 ballot. Both can improve freedom and democracy in our state, but in order to pass, they will require a lot of signatures and then votes.
Before explaining these two projects, we should note that the term “democracy” is used lately with considerable looseness. Even the most shameless dictators now claim that their countries are democracies. Russia’s Putin, Venezuela’s Chavez and Iran’s Ahmadinejad come to mind. They were once elected democratically but then gradually reduced their opponents’ freedoms to the point that the term “democracy” is now questionable at best.
Ethical behavior is absolutely crucial to democracy, and unfairness towards opponents can destroy it. How? Quiet changes in election practices, minor conflicts of interest, some financial advantage in campaigns and secret use of political muscle on opponents. Little by little, the freedom to choose leaders is crushed.
None of our Utah legislators are in the same league as Putin, Chavez or Ahmadinejad, but some of those strong-men’s tactics seem distressingly familiar.
Quiet changes in election practices? The Wall Street Journal called our legislators’ 1991 gerrymandering of Utah election districts one of the worst and most blatant power grabs by one political party in history.
Conflicts of interest? At least one current, influential senator is a registered lobbyist for one of Utah’s most powerful interest groups.
Financial advantage in campaigns? Over 81 percent of campaign finance for Utah legislators comes from corporations and special interests — not voters — and objective observers regularly give Utah failing grades for its loose campaign finance laws.
Use of political muscle on opponents? Think about the Senate Judiciary chairman’s threatening letter to the judge who dared to rule against his developer friend in Mapleton. Perhaps most telling was the Utah County legislators’ demand that a prominent candidate for president of Utah Valley University have his wife apologize for having campaigned last year for ethics reform.
Anytime our politicians use unethical means, they are chipping away at freedom and democracy, at government of the people, by the people and for the people.
So how are the two citizen groups proposing to repair Utah’s damaged democracy with ballot initiatives for 2010?
“Fair Boundaries” proposes an independent commission for redrawing election districts every decade (http://www.fairboundaries.org).
“Utahns for Ethical Government” (http://www.utahethics.org) proposes clear standards on legislative ethics and an independent commission to hear complaints involving them. Both commissions will be limited by the Utah Constitution to an advisory role but will have powerful influence on public opinion and thus on the Legislature.
Voters and legislators should study both petitions carefully. Ideally, our legislators should themselves pass the proposed initiative bills or stronger ones during the next session.
If they do not or instead pass weaker legislation in an attempt to defeat these petitions, Utahns will have the chance to repair our democracy by signing these petitions and then voting for them in November 2010.
We clearly understand that ethics are crucial in interpersonal relations, so it’s high time that we demand high standards of ethical behavior in Utah politics. Our freedom ultimately depends on it.
• Don Jarvis, of Provo, is a retired BYU administrator and professor of Russian. Craig Dennis, also of Provo, is former publisher of the Daily Herald and is now a certified business coach and business broker.
When most Utahns look at Olene Walker they see Utah’s only woman governor, who governed with a moderate, no-nonsense approach and had an 85 percent approval rating while in office.
When Utah Eagle Forum devotees look at Olene Walker, all they can see is Hester Prynne.
“These constitutional thieves should never hold office again. They should be branded with a scarlet A for seeking to adulterate the constitution and constitutional principles,” says a Utah Eagle Forum e-mail that seems a bit hysterical, even for that group.
The e-mail, sent to rally the troops to defeat an ethics reform initiative that advocates are attempting to get on the 2010 ballot, basically says that if ethics reform passes, it will destroy the state of Utah as we know it.
Walker served for nearly 11 years as Gov. Mike Leavitt’s lieutenant governor, then for 14 months as one of the state’s most popular chief executives before being ousted by her own Republican Party. She was the leading voice at a press conference last week that promoted the petition drive to get ethics reform on next year’s ballot.
So, she must be one of the main targets of the frenzied e-mail with the Eagle Forum logo branding as sinners and adulterers those who are pushing the initiative. The e-mail puts the Eagle Forum morals crusaders in the same camp as the Legislature’s conservative bloc, which has pushed back with such extreme vigor it almost borders on paranoia.
Besides Walker, 35 former legislators have endorsed the ethics reform initiative, while the State Republican Central Committee voted almost unanimously to oppose it.
The Eagle Forum’s missive paints the petition sponsors as monarchists who use their unprecedented power to intimidate and destroy the honest, hard-working folks in the Legislature.
But the e-mail betrays a less-than-honorable agenda with several out-of-context, misleading interpretations of the initiative itself. For example, it warns that if the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature can’t agree on 20 people to be considered for the five-member commission that would be created to hear ethics complaints against legislators, “the sponsors [those unelected people who wrote the bill] unanimously shall select the 20 candidates.”
The problem with that alarum is that it doesn’t explain why the provision is in the initiative. It was put there so that spiteful legislative leaders couldn’t defeat the spirit of the proposed law by agreeing to disagree on 20 names, from which five would be selected randomly to serve on the commission.
That way, they could thwart it by their studied inability to come to a consensus. The commission then, by default, would select 20 names, which would be drawn randomly, in order to achieve the goal of seating a commission.
The e-mail also erroneously states that the ethics commission could investigate not just sitting legislators, but all those who served in the past. In fact, the commission would only have authority to investigate current legislators.
The e-mail creators also took out of context language to insure that a legislator accused of ethics violations couldn’t claim immunity because the alleged violation took place before the initiative took effect.
The e-mail also warns of unlimited power given to members of the commission, with no checks and balances. It fails to mention the fail-safe check and balance that the commission is only advisory. It has no authority to sanction a legislator. It would make recommendations to the Legislature, which would then decide whether to act on them.
But, hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good scare?
By ones and twos, the former Utah lawmakers — some with gray hair, some with white — came to the Utah Capitol to stand together in support of a citizen’s initiative that would establish a nonpartisan ethics commission and code of conduct for the Legislature.
Olene Walker was the first to speak. It’s time, she said, for sitting lawmakers to recognize that absent specific, binding standards and rules, the Legislature will remain all but rudderless when it comes to binding ethics reform.
Walker is a former Republican governor and representative. Most importantly, in this case, she was lieutenant governor charged with overseeing elections and financial disclosure from officer holders, candidates, political action and interest committees and lobbyists, among others.
For nearly three decades, she has watched ethics reform efforts die in the Rules Committees and seen legislators enjoy gifts, though limited, from lobbyists who now far outnumber the lawmakers themselves.
Utah is often said to be the best-managed state in the union, she said, so why does it earn a failing grade from the Center for Public Integrity? (The nonprofit organization bills itself as a producer of investigative journalism on issues of public concern.)
“Utah should have the highest integrity rating in the nation” and the laws to get us there, her voice resonating in the domed ceiling high above.
Walker is one of 35 former legislators who back Utahns for Ethical Government’s petition drive to get an ethics initiative on the ballot in 2010. They are Democrats and Republicans whose service spanned nearly 40 years. About 15 of them were there in the Rotunda to back Walker and former state Sens. Karen Shepherd and Karl Snow, who also spoke. Shepherd also served one term as Utah’s 2nd District congresswoman.
Now the Legislature’s Ethics Study Committee has endorsed a bill that would set up an independent commission to screen complaints against legislators. The five-member commission, made up of retired judges and lawmakers, would investigate complaints. Those found frivolous or politically motivated would be weeded out; those deemed to have merit would go to the Senate or House ethics committee for a public airing.
It’s a step toward progress for the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, which has strained for years against ethics reform. Today, Utah is one of only 10 states without an independent ethics commission and one of only five with no limits on campaign contributions.
Speaking of which, Gov. Gary Herbert last month hauled in about $1 million in his first annual campaign gala. More than half came from Realtors, developers, construction firms and energy companies.
Both UEG and Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, have proposals to contain political contributions
Back on the hill, many sitting legislators remain hostile to the initiative, and last weekend, the state Republican Party’s central committee voted 103 to 1 for a resolution opposing the ballot initiative.
There’s no doubt that getting 95,000 signatures on the proposal by April 15 will be a long, hard slog. Even some of the former lawmakers at the Capitol could be heard wondering if they’ll make it.
Kim Burningham, a former GOP lawmaker and one of the leaders of UEG, said Wednesday it’s too early to even begin to count signatures.
The petitions now are all over the state, he said, “but there are weak pockets and strong pockets. Winter’s a hard time.”
But maybe you, like me, were taught to listen to the wisdom of the elders. It’s clear to me that Thursday’s bipartisan show of support for the initiative deserves the careful consideration of every voter in Utah.
As Shepherd said, reform is just a matter of common sense.
“Roaches check in but they don’t check out.” That old commercial about roach traps evokes the present-day image of our Utah legislators. Once in office, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. They keep building more barriers and finding more excuses to remain as permanent residents of the people’s house.
While a bit facetious, it’s a sad day when citizens have to fight their elected officials to carry out requests for ethics reform to have a government they can trust. But like roaches, the elected leaders keep building up their immunity in order to resist any suggestions to change. Over the years, they have come up with some creative tacks — ignoring constituent concerns, becoming offended, assuming they “know best,” “killing the messenger” and making token changes while doing the same.
Before leaving office, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. created the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy to recommend ways to “have an impact on citizens’ ability and desire to vote,” with a focus on elections, lobbying and campaign financing. Legislators resisted the governor establishing such a commission. The commission completed its work this month after its chairman met privately with several legislative leaders to work out a compromise on its recommendations (http://www.strengthendemocracy.org).
It appears that legislators were quick to compromise on the issue of campaign contributions ?— $10,000 over four years for the Senate, and $5,000 over two years for the House. According to Senate President Michael Waddoups, those limits were so high it “really is not a big thing” (quoted in Wednesday’s Deseret News). The commission compromised one of the key things Huntsman wanted to review in order to give voters a “desire to vote.” It appears the commission’s work may go the way all commissions go.
Some legislators still seem set on establishing a commission to handle complaints of ethics violations as a way of diffusing public criticism. Why wait for members to fail? They would do well to let their ethics study committee upgrade its code of ethical conduct to provide clear guidelines for members to follow. It would go far in preventing violations and reduce public criticism. How will they police themselves?
Lawmakers seem consumed with keeping their seat by fighting the majority of citizens who want ethics reform. If they responded to citizens’ interests, legislators may find that they would not have to depend on lobbyists for their survival. They should keep an open mind instead of playing the bully or victim role. Legislators who resist having retired judges sitting on an ethics panel because they have different standards than legislators might think twice. Judges follow the law. Those who say they may have to resign their office if the rules change may find their sense of importance misplaced.
Rather than finding fault with the people’s initiative referendum, legislators should try to understand the intent behind the citizens’ concerns and take the best ideas for improving their conduct. After all, it’s their conduct that has led to the complaints voters have in trusting their government. Citizens keep calling for ethics reform including limiting campaign spending and accepting gifts — which have gotten out of control and are the reason for the public’s mistrust in their government.
We should not have to fight with political leaders to have our voices heard. Legislators should welcome the spirit of the intent of the recommendations of the commission and those of the people’s petition initiative. It’s time lawmakers worked for the public good, rather than focused on keeping their seats. They may be surprised at the breath of fresh air they would bring to the people’s house.
It just may take citizens to remind lawmakers that the state Capitol is not a roach motel.
It doesn’t matter whether the debate is taking place online in the comments accompanying a news story or in a debate at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
When the topic under discussion is an initiative that would reform ethics rules for the Utah Legislature, both sides throw off heat and passion.
The initiative, a 21-page handbook of behavior being put forth by a group called Utahns for Ethical Government — which includes some former lawmakers among its ranks — has opponents saying that it goes too far and pries too deeply into lawmakers’ business.
The group, which hopes to gather enough signatures to put the measure to voters in the 2010 election cycle, counters most of the criticisms at Utahethics.org, where you can also read the proposal for yourself. I hope people will do precisely that.
The crux of the initiative is establishing an independent commission that would look at allegations of ethical impropriety by lawmakers and make recommendations to the Legislature as to what action should be taken against a lawmaker who seems to have committed an ethical breach. Its membership would be five people chosen at random from a pool of 20 candidates who are acceptable to both political parties, in order to make the commission a nonpartisan entity. It’s an advisory body, so it won’t mete out actual punishment.
The initiative also establishes rules regarding political contributions and from whom and how much a lawmaker can accept, as well as how that money can be spent. Corporations would not be allowed to donate to campaigns. Disclosure would be a must. And campaign cash would have to be used for actual campaigns or given to charity after a certain amount of time, rather than letting the candidate treat it like a personal piggy bank.
The proposal says lawmakers must wait for two years to become lobbyists once they leave office, and it beefs up disclosure of anything that might turn into a conflict of interest. Further, legislators could not serve on corporate boards if the only qualification they had for it was the fact that they are lawmakers and have clout the corporation might desire.
Some of the measure’s critics have had harsh things to say about citizen initiatives in general. Critics say that once a citizen initiative is passed, it’s hard to change or improve, even when doing so is important, because it can be portrayed as going against the public’s will.
There may be some truth to it, but I find that argument ironic as all get out, given that the public has clamored for some time for meaningful ethics reform, and the Utah Legislature, with years and years to deliver up something meaningful, has pretty much said, “Nope.” The Legislature has passed up many opportunities to forge its own real reform. Even as the demands have increased, efforts have been mostly token.
I’m betting this next legislative session will be different. Just maybe, if they get serious, they can look their constituents in the eyes and say honestly that the initiative isn’t needed. They did it themselves.
I think one thing is clear: The public wants real ethics reform, whether in this form or another. Too often, lawmakers have seemed to hold themselves above us, rather than accountable to us. One positive that I think may have come from the trials of the past year and its economic upheaval has been a willingness on the part of John Q. Public to finally say “enough” with conviction.
Next, I hope someone goes after carve-outs that allow lawmakers, especially Congress, to inflict laws upon us while excusing themselves from living by them.
Republican legislators opposed to the proposed ethics reform initiative have told constituents that the initiative would be disastrous and they should read the entire 21-page bill before signing a petition to get it on the ballot.
It’s too bad the leaders of the Utah County Republican Party don’t heed the advice of their esteemed lawmakers.
The Utah County GOP Central Committee recently passed a resolution opposing the ethics reform initiative. When some committee members complained that they had not had a chance to read the bill before voting to oppose it, they were summarily dismissed and members were told to voice their opposition whether they knew what the bill contained or not.
Before the issue was proposed to the Central Committee, it was vetted in the Utah County Republican executive committee, where Sen. Curt Bramble and Rep. Becky Lockhart appeared on behalf of the resolution, even though they are not members of the executive committee.
When some members of the committee tried to speak against the resolution, they were shouted down, town-hall-meeting style.
There’s certainly a lot of legislative handwringing over a ballot initiative to establish a nonpartisan ethics commission and a code of conduct for Utah’s state senators and representatives.
If signed by 95,000 Utahns who cast gubernatorial votes last year, the initiative would go on the 2010 general election ballot. If approved, it would probably send a lot of lawmakers into a nose dive of despair.
Already, leaders are claiming that no good, honest person would run for office if he or she might face a complaint that he’d violated legislative ethics.
It could be worse — it’s possible that good, honest voters would assert their rights and values in opposition to the wishes of the Republican leadership in the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.
The fundamental problem is that ethics on the hill are not as pristine as leadership would have us believe. Remember Greg Hughes, who slipped out of allegations that he tried to bribe a fellow representative to change her vote on vouchers last year?
Hughes ultimately was given a “conduct unbecoming” slap by his colleagues, if getting hit in the face with a feather can be construed as a slap.
Or Chris Buttars, whose Senate brothers refused to sanction him for the racist, homophobic bile he spewed last year.
Here are some basics of the initiative: It would establish a nonpartisan, five-member advisory board to hear complaints; bar departing lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for two years; ban virtually all gifts and cap campaign contributions; and prohibit trading favors or influence for votes. It also would prohibit a lawmaker from giving funds from his or her campaign to another legislator.
Do I hear distant howls?
Thing is, 30 other states have independent ethics commissions, so the need and value has been established. And Utah is one of only five states without contribution caps. And after last year, even Utah legislative leaders acknowledge that their ethics system is broken.
Now, under the best of circumstances lawmakers should conduct the state’s business competently, thoughtfully and fairly, because in reality, they are in the business of governing. They are paid, have great insurance and, most importantly, are responsible to all Utahns, not just their constituents.
Doctors, lawyers, certified public accountants, teachers, law enforcement officials, even journalists: all have codes of conduct and ethics that, if breached, likely will cost them their jobs. Businessmen and tradespeople who don’t deal ethically while providing goods and services won’t get far.
Which is why the claim that good, smart, dedicated people would shy away from running for the Legislature is self-serving bunk. People always have and always will find ways to serve others; being a lawmaker who adheres to clear ethical standards probably is a lot safer than those who lack — and fear — such clarity.
It will be up to the voters to say yay or nay on the ballot initiative. Those voters, by the way, are you and me.
And if the initiative doesn’t make it, then, again, it’s up to us to hold legislative leadership to its announced intention to do the job themselves.
A legal resolution to the dispute between organizers of an ethics initiative and Republican state office holders over whether online petition signatures are legal needs to be resolved quickly. If the Utah Supreme Court needs to make the final call, the procedure must be hurried in order to allow those who have signed online petitions adequate time to sign paper petitions.
In our opinion, online petition gathering should be legal. The method has been used for a decade in state government business and it is easy to check the online signatures with voting records. In January, several groups seeking to put various initiatives on the ballot started gathering online signatures. One of those groups was Utahns for Ethical Government, which is seeking 95,000 signatures to enact ethical reforms on the behavior of Utah lawmakers. The Republican leadership in the Legislature strongly opposes these ethics reforms, which include a ban on gifts and an independent ethics commission that has some teeth.
This year there have been several ethics-related measures moving through the Legislature sponsored by Republicans. While they are a small improvement on past years’ efforts, they are essentially cosmetic measures. For example, there is no blanket ban on gifts, a proposed independent ethics commission is essentially toothless, and a proposed ban on pricy meals has a loophole that would allow groups of legislators free meals. The UEG initiative would end these abuses. It would restore ethics to a Legislature that for too long has tolerated standards that most would shun in their personal or professional lives.
Last week, Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, acting on the advice of Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, rejected the online petitions. Both Bell and Shurtleff are Republicans. The state Republican Party has already officially opposed the UEG ethics initiative. This has become a battle between the status quo and a grassroots effort to bring reform to our state’s political system. Those currently in power will fight it every step of the way. In fact, if the initiative gets on the ballot and passes, we expect a court challenge.
The Utah Supreme Court is the right venue to decide whether online signatures are allowable. We hope the justices will make a quick decision.
According to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Utah law does not allow people to sign initiative petitions electronically. While only a court can determine whether Shurtleff is correct, his analysis of the letter of the law is solid. What is missing from his opinion, however, is the spirit of the Utah Constitution, which enshrines the people’s ability to make law through initiatives as a constitutional right.
We believe that because the state allows people to use electronic signatures to complete legal transactions with government agencies, the state also should allow registered voters to sign initiative petitions the same way.
This is much more than a hypothetical question. It goes to the heart of our democracy. It is critical to the citizens groups that currently are circulating separate petitions to reform legislative ethics, redistricting and taxes. They are faced with the monumental task of collecting 95,000 signatures of registered voters statewide in 26 of 29 senate districts by April 15. The legality of signatures collected on secure Web sites could make or break their efforts to place proposals for new laws before the voters in November.
That’s what’s at stake here.
The attorney general is correct that the state constitution allows the Legislature to set the conditions in which citizens may exercise the initiative power, and the laws governing initiative petitions are all about collecting conventional signatures on paper. They do not anticipate or address electronic signatures.
However, the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act allows state agencies to set up the means and rules to allow electronic signatures for transactions between two parties. Shurtleff argues that the act does not apply to initiative petitions because the state has made no effort to extend its provisions to initiatives and to make rules that would govern such a process. He’s right about that. A court would have to rule very broadly in defense of the constitutional right of the people to make law through initiatives for the current petitioners to carry the day.
That said, there is no technological reason why secure Web sites cannot provide protections against fraudulent signatures on petitions, and electronic databases could be easier for election officials to verify than reams of paper.
The Legislature traditionally has been hostile to initiative petitions. But in this Internet age, if the courts will not provide for the circulation and signing of petitions electronically, the Legislature should. To do otherwise unjustifiably hobbles an important constitutional right.
Watching Republicans in the Utah Legislature try to enact ethics reform is a little like trying to get the family dog to stop chewing the cable wires in the backyard. They just don’t understand what we’re trying to tell them.
Watching these pathetic efforts to try to police themselves, we sincerely hope the citizen ethics proposals get enough signatures to get on the ballot this fall.
Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by State Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is allegedly an effort at ethics reform by Republicans in the Legislature. It’s really a fantasy by a party so comfortable with its perks, legislative intimidation tactics and cozy relationships with lobbyists that too many of its members have ceased to understand that unethical behavior is repugnant to the rest of us.
Depending on your mood — laugh or cry at SJR3. It forbids the public from reporting that an ethics complaint has been filed against a lawmaker unless four of five appointees to a planned weak ethics commission decide a violation has occurred.
The ethics commission would have no disciplinary power. It could only forward the complaint on to a legislative committee. That committee would then make a recommendation for a full — Republican dominated — House or Senate vote.
All the ethics commission hearings and documents would be closed to the public unless the required 80 percent vote of members occurred. If word of a complaint was provided to the public, the complaint would instantly be dismissed by the ethics commission.
There’s more mirth: Only registered voters can file complaints, and at least two have to unite to file a complaint. Lawmakers who file complaints don’t need to provide knowledge of wrongdoing. If a complaint gets a legislative hearing, the media can inform the public, but no cameras or recorders are allowed.
And finally, here’s one more cover-your-rear provision: No ethics complaints would be allowed 60 days prior to a primary or election vote. In other words, that’s four months out of the year a corrupt lawmaker can escape responsibility.
Valentine’s ethics rule is a fantasy, and lawmakers in the Legislature should be ashamed to support it. Hopefully, proposals such as SJR3 are last-gasp enabling tactics by a legislative leadership sorely in need of ethics reform.
The Utah Legislature is trying to be a little bit more ethical. It’s a welcome shift from years past, when legislators have claimed that keeping or swapping campaign cash or accepting $49.99 gifts was as ethical as they were going to get.
Nevertheless, there has been some improvement, initiated by legislators’ real fears that a citizens ethics initiative — if it gets on the ballot and is passed this fall — will impose a level of ethics they don’t feel comfortable with. Such levels include a complete ban on gifts and an ethics investigation procedure that does not hinder public access to the investigation.
That brings us to Senate bills 136 and 138, sponsored by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem. Valentine is the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 3. SJR3 establishes an ethics commission and details how complaints can proceed. Not surprisingly, SJR3 is a very weak measure crafted, in our opinion, more to protect lawmakers rather than uncovering ethical violations. Our concern today is with Valentine’s companion measures, SB136 and SB138. Both are deliberate efforts to make sure the media, and the public, are hindered in their access to ethics investigations.
SB136, if passed, amends the state open-meetings law so that the ethics commission investigates complaints behind locked doors. SB138, conversely, makes sure that any documents related to an investigation that fails to get four votes in the commission are forever banned from public scrutiny. Unless four out of five ethics committee members agree that an ethics complaint moves forward, the matter dies a very silent death.
Although the legislative majority doesn’t realize this, you cannot have strong ethics in government without an open government. Exempting a legislative ethics commission from the Utah open-meetings statute is by itself unethical. We agree with Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, who says that at the very least, legislators should release ethics investigation findings after a commission is finished.
Valentine’s trio, SJR3, SB136 and SB138, are feeble half-measures. We wouldn’t even be getting this ethical gruel from lawmakers if there wasn’t the possibility of stronger ethics initiatives in the future. We urge readers to sign the Utahns for Ethical Government petition to get the citizens ethics reform initiative on the ballot. Voters can sign the petition online at http://ueg.utahpetitions.org/
If it were the only proposal on the table, proponents of good government would probably be pleased with the ethics reform package unveiled by Utah House Republicans this week. Of course, if there weren’t other proposals on the table, GOP leaders would never have suggested such expansive change.
After decades of inaction followed by a few years of creeping ethics reform in the Legislature, a healthy dose of skepticism is justified. The knee-jerk reaction would be to label the Legislature’s bills as a way for lawmakers to cut their losses, and make it less likely that more restrictive measures contained in a pair of citizens’ ballot initiatives are approved. And that may well be the motive.
The Legislature’s ethics package would create an ethics commission, limit campaign contributions, broaden gift disclosure requirements, increase the frequency of filing campaign finance reports and require more information to be revealed on lawmakers’ conflict of interest forms. Majority House Republicans, meeting in a closed-door caucus session, agreed to back the bills. The GOP Senate caucus discussed the measures but took no position.
To say the package is a step in the right direction would be an understatement. These are solid measures that would bring Utah law more in line with other states, and should be approved. But to say it’s the giant leap that’s needed to restore the public’s faith in the Legislature, and hold lawmakers accountable, would be an exaggeration.
The measures fall far short of “far-reaching reform,” a phrase that better describes the citizen initiatives. Organizers are attempting to gather 95,000 signatures of registered voters by April 15 to place the proposals on the November ballot.
While we can’t yet speak to the particulars — House Republicans only released a summary of their ethics package — it’s safe to say that the scope of the citizen initiatives far exceeds the reach of the legislative proposal. There’s no ban on gifts from lobbyists or campaign donations from corporations. The contributions cap for individual donations is way too high. There are no restrictions on personal use of campaign donations by sitting lawmakers, and the votes of four of the five ethics commission members would be required to forward a complaint to the Legislature for disposition.
Worse, lawmakers will attempt to place their ethics commission plan on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, which means that if the initiatives and the amendment are all approved, the lawmakers’ weaker ethics commission proposal would become the law of the land. Lawmakers should simply enact the commission into law, then step back and let voters have their say in November.
The good news: At least somebody made money in Utah last year. The bad news: The people raking it in are state politicians.
Utah officeholders, candidates and political action committees collected nearly $4 million in campaign contributions in 2009. It’s a tidy sum for a poor economy in a nonelection year.
State lawmakers, who could cap campaign contributions but won’t, collected a combined $1 million. Senate President Michael Waddoups led the pack with $79,000, much of it unsolicited. It shows how ingrained the giving has become.
The Utah Association of Realtors was the biggest contributor with donations of about $148,000, and was joined on the podium by NuSkin ($120,000) and EnergySolutions ($96,550). Big corporations and special interest groups try to capture the ear and influence the votes of lawmakers by greasing their palms. And, as one of just five states with no limits on campaign contributions, Utah makes it easy.
That could change. As officeholders and candidates began filing their campaign finance reports earlier this month, The Peoples Right, LLC, was holding public hearings, part of the process to place a pair of voter initiatives on the November ballot.
The group’s timing couldn’t have been better. Its aptly named “anti-bribery” initiative would ban corporate and union donations, and cap individual contributions at $1,000 per calendar year. And its “anti-corruption” initiative would rightly prohibit candidates from converting campaign funds to their personal use. Supporters now must gather 95,000 signatures of registered voters by April 15.
It brings to three the number of groups filing ethics-related initiatives, including Utahns for Ethical Government, which is pushing a comprehensive legislative-ethics and campaign-finance reform package. The UEG proposal includes caps on contributions, a gift ban, a legislative code of conduct and an independent legislative ethics commission.
Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, said initiative applications have been filed “willy nilly,” and criticized ethics initiative organizers for not first discussing their concerns with the interim ethics committee that he chairs. “Government by initiative,” Dougall said, “is typically not the best way to go about things.”
But in this case, it’s the only way.
Despite numerous public opinion polls proving Utahns favor far-reaching campaign finance and ethics reforms, the Legislature has done far too little to address those legitimate concerns. Now, the people are taking matters into their own hands, as the state constitution allows, and the situation demands.
This Christmas season, we wonder if some of the leaders of Gun Owners of Utah have enjoyed one eggnog too many.
How else to explain the interest group’s utterly bizarre fear that a grassroots proposal designed to make Utah’s lawmakers behave ethically could lead to a gun registry.
We understand readers may be confused at this point. One wonders: what in the blazes does a gun registry have to do with ending the unhealthy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.
Here’s the “reasoning” of Gun Owners of Utah. Because the citizens initiative would require lawmakers to disclose any property that might be subject to regulation, Gun Owners of Utah thinks that would lead to a gun registry. The organization has blasted out an e-mail to its members urging them not to sign a petition to get the ethics initiative on the ballot next year.
We await Guns Owners of Utah’s next e-mail warning that getting the ethics reform initiative on the ballot next year might result in an influx of black helicopters in Utah skies.
Seriously though, we understand that despite its title, Gun Owners of Utah does not represent the vast majority of Utah gun owners. Most Utah gun owners understand that the ethics initiative is only concerned with a lawmaker’s property that may result in a financial conflict of interest. Can we make this any clearer: If you own a gun, the ethics initiative next year is no threat to you. Unfortunately, because of the idiotic e-mail, a substantial number of residents are receiving hysterical false information from a silly organization.
Unfortunately, the Gun Owners of Utah hysteria impressed one Top of Utah legislator. Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, believes that there might be merit to Gun Owners of Utah’s claim. We’d like to think that Oda is just engaging in some political cynicism, that he is using the hysteria as an excuse to pile on the citizens initiative that most Republicans in our Legislature — for personal reasons — oppose. The alternative — that Oda actually believes the Gun Owners of Utah nonsense — is far more disturbing.
It’s long past the time necessary for Oda’s constituents to give him a reality check. And, Gun Owners of Utah could use one, too.
Time and again, opinion polls have shown that a majority of Utahns favor far-reaching legislative ethics reforms. But time and again, lawmakers have failed to deliver all but cosmetic changes.
That disconnect, and the resulting disenchantment with democracy, is best reflected in the state’s abysmal voting rates, one of the signs that citizens are increasingly disengaged. Kirk Jowers, acting chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy, said Utahns are “less likely to cast a ballot than citizens in 47 other states.”
The 19-member commission, a mix of elected and community leaders, was formed to increase citizen participation and restore faith in government by recommending changes to state lobbying regulations, and election and campaign finance statutes. And it should be commended for its yearlong effort and common-sense proposals released last week.
But the commission’s recommendations and findings are not binding. Only the Legislature, or the people via ballot initiatives, can enact laws. And the commission did not address all areas of concern. Under pressure from legislative leaders, former Gov. Jon Huntsman removed legislative redistricting laws and ethics laws from the commission’s purview.
Topping the commission’s wish list is the creation of an Elections, Lobbying and Campaign Finance Enforcement Commission to ensure compliance with state laws, a sound idea. The governor’s commission also recommends that the state cap campaign contributions, but the proposed donation limits are too high to curb the influence of major contributors on the political process and remove the appearance of corruption.
Other common-sense proposals would strengthen campaign finance reporting requirements, streamline voter registration, remove a loophole that allows lawmakers to lobby the Legislature immediately after leaving office, and make it easier for overseas military personnel to vote.
Those are good ideas, but they hardly qualify as far-reaching reform that will restore trust in government. Better bets for Beehive State voters are a pair of proposed ballot initiatives. One would establish an independent redistricting commission to advise state lawmakers on redrawing legislative districts after each census. The second would force substantive ethics reform, including a gift ban, reasonable limits on campaign contributions, a strict code of ethics for lawmakers and an independent ethics commission to enforce it.
Even if state lawmakers embrace the commission’s recommendations and implement the suggested reforms, citizens would be better served by the ballot initiatives.
If Utah residents don’t get behind the current voter initiative on legislative ethics reform, they’ll get what they deserve: a branch of government ripe for corruption. Actually, that’s what they already have. As things now stand, campaign contributions, conflicts of interest and perks from lobbyists are so loosely regulated that no legislative session passes without questionable conduct by lawmakers. But that’s all it ever amounts to — questions. No real accountability results from the annual ethics controversies plaguing the Utah Legislature. Since legislators themselves have shown no inclination to close the gaping regulatory holes, a voter initiative has become the only way to address the problem. It’s a risky step, however, because if voters don’t act now, they’ll send a message to Capitol Hill that the status quo is acceptable, virtually guaranteeing no reform for years to come. Here are the key elements of the proposed law:
* It would ban gifts by lobbyists to legislators.
* It would prohibit legislators and candidates from using campaign money for personal expenditures.
* It would prohibit a candidate from giving his own campaign money to other candidates.
* It would ban corporations from giving directly to candidates.
* It would ban legislators from being paid lobbyists while serving in the Legislature and for two years thereafter.
* It would establish an ethics commission to hear complaints of ethical violations by legislators and, where merited, recommend sanctions.
The annual showering of gifts, Jazz tickets, free meals and other perks on legislatures has caused a lot of grumbles from the press and the public over the years. Though shameful, this is really a minuscule ethical problem compared some of the other unchecked practices, such as allowing candidates to use campaign money for personal expenditures. If a candidate can spend campaign cash on a flat-screen TV, to send his kids to college or to make a down payment on a house, how is this any different from bribe money? With no current limit on campaign contributions and no restriction on corporate giving, the opportunity for abuse is enormous. The ethics initiative has won endorsements from several former legislators, including former state representative and governor Olene Walker. There’s a reason many of the initiative’s backers are former instead of current office holders. First, they no longer benefit from the perks and loopholes, and second, they no longer face political pressure to fall in line. Clearly, the only way something is going to get done is if voters take this bull by the horns.
The Utah Republican Party is officially opposed to a legislative ethics initiative that will be on the ballot next fall if sponsors can get the required number of signatures.
The irony is that it’s quite likely most Utah Republicans support the initiative. Polls tab the initiative at about 85 percent support. Our former Republican state legislator and governor, Olene Walker, is a supporter.
We’re not surprised that the Republican leadership in Utah opposes ethics reform. Republican leaders in Utah’s Legislature have spent decades creating a legislative ethics cesspool that is simply an embarrassment. Even the most basic ethics standards are ignored in Utah. Advocates for ethical government have attempted each legislative session to implement standards but legislative leaders refuse to entertain serious ethics reform. The best “ethics reform” we get from the Utah Republican-dominated Legislature are feckless, timid proposals that protect the powerful and keep legislators smothered with freebies and campaign cash that they can spread around at will.
Here is what the ethics initiative would do. It’s straight from the Web site of Utahns for Ethical Government, the sponsor of the initiative. (http://www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org/ ) The initiative:
* Bans gifts by lobbyists to legislators
* Bans legislators and candidates from using campaign money for personal expenditures
* Bans a candidate from giving his own campaign money to other candidates
* Bans corporations from giving directly to candidates
* Bans legislators from being paid lobbyists while serving in the Legislature and for 2 years thereafter
* Places caps on personal and PAC donations to candidates
The initiative also sets up an independent ethics commission to investigate ethical complaints.
These are not radical proposals. Most states already have them. They are common-sense guidelines for ethical behavior in government. They promote honesty and integrity and keep our legislators accountable to their constituents, rather than lobbyists and others with lots of cash.
The Legislative leadership likes their freebies. It’s apparent they’ll do everything they can to stop popular ethics reform, including a likely court challenge if we enact it via a popular vote. Utahns need to ask their Republican legislators why their party has a problem with good government. And please, sign the ethics initiative petitions. Don’t let the special interests stop this grassroots effort.
For those who wish to learn more about the initiative, there will be a debate Monday in Ogden at 11:30 a.m. at Weber State University’s Shepherd Union Wildcat Theater. Former Republican legislator Kim Burningham will speak in favor of the ethics intiative, State Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, will speak in opposition to it. The debate, open to all, is sponsored by the Richard Richards Institute for Politics at WSU.
Utah’s GOP says it opposes the ethics reform initiative currently in circulation. This, party leaders say, does not mean they oppose “meaningful measures to ensure ethical behavior.”
That position would be much more believable if the party, which has enjoyed control of the state Legislature and governor’s office for decades, had ever pushed for such a thing. If Republicans truly want meaningful ethics reform, nothing is stopping them.
Instead, some GOP legislative leaders are just now beginning to express support for campaign contribution limits, obviously spurred by hopes of heading off the initiative, whose backers hope to place it on next November’s ballot.
The party’s stance on the initiative became news this week at about the same time South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was in the news again because of charges that, among other things, he used campaign funds to reimburse himself for personal expenses related to an extramarital affair he was carrying on with a woman in Argentina.
That should be of particular interest to Utahns, because what Sanford did with campaign cash would not be considered a crime in Utah. Here, politicians are free to use the money people donate to their campaigns for anything they like. If nothing else, Sanford’s alleged use of such money for an affair that interfered with his duties as an officeholder makes a convincing case for the need for tighter rules.
This is not meant as a condemnation of all GOP lawmakers, nor does it let Democrats completely off the hook, either. But a party with as much power as Republicans have enjoyed in Utah must take responsibility for its inability to act.
During the last legislative session, new House Speaker Dave Clark made ethics reform an area of emphasis, marking the first time that had happened. His commendable efforts resulted in some reforms, but they did not go nearly far enough. Time and time again, Utah lawmakers make excuses for not enacting reforms that seem to work just fine in other states.
Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity in Washington gave Utah an F grade for its financial disclosure standards. Even if the ethics laws passed last winter were taken into account, the score would not improve that grade. Only Idaho, Michigan and Vermont scored lower.
The ethics initiative is not perfect. We believe strong reporting rules are more effective than limits on campaign contributions, which tend to favor incumbents. Other aspects may need some refining, should the measure become law. But it is clear that the initiative has prodded a move toward ethics reform that wasn’t going to happen on its own.
Maybe Utah lawmakers have seen the light and simply want to hold themselves accountable.
Or maybe they’re hearing footsteps, as members of Utahns for Ethical Government pound the street gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to institute far-reaching legislative ethics reform.
Motivation aside, one has to view a proposed resolution that cleared the Legislature’s Interim Ethics Committee last week as a positive step toward ethical governance.
The measure, if approved by the Legislature, would establish an independent five-member ethics commission with subpoena powers. Composed of retired judges and former lawmakers, the commission would serve as a grand jury of sorts, gathering evidence, holding hearings and screening complaints filed against sitting state lawmakers. The bill would also allow private citizens to lodge ethics complaints against legislators.
It would be a better bill if the ethics complaint process were more transparent, if commission members were not handpicked by legislative leaders, and if the commission sat in actual judgment of accused lawmakers instead of just screening complaints and making recommendations to legislative ethics committees.
The commission would operate secretly. Complaints would be sealed, a gag order would be imposed on all participants and commission meetings would be held behind closed doors. And a complaint wouldn’t be made public unless, and until, it were forwarded to either the House or Senate ethics committees for formal adjudication. Punishment could include censure or expulsion from the Legislature.
Still, it’s good medicine for a sick system, similar in some ways to the independent ethics commission composed of citizens that the UEG’s ballot initiative would establish.
But, without the rigid code of legislative conduct that’s part and parcel of the ballot proposal, the commission proposed by the Interim Ethics Committee is not a cure for unethical government.
The ballot initiative includes a gift ban, limits on campaign contributions, a prohibition on spending campaign funds for personal expenses and other key provisions that would hold the Legislature to a high standard. It is supported by 35 former state lawmakers and former Gov. Olene Walker, but opposed by the Utah Republican Party and legislative leaders, who can’t seem to see the handwriting on the wall.
Lawmakers should adopt all of these common-sense proposals contained in the initiative into law, or risk having the electorate do it for them.
Constituents expect their lawmakers to act with integrity. Although most elected officials perform their duties in an ethical manner, the actions of a few and the contents of certain laws breed distrust.
Many Utahns have, at one time or another, questioned the ethics of people who hold public offices. Few have done anything about it – until now, that is.
A group known as Utahns for Ethical Government is pushing an initiative that would change the landscape of Utah politics. The question is by how much.
The group proposes several changes to Utah law that would create an independent review commission, limit who could contribute to campaigns and limit dollar amounts that could be contributed to campaigns. Some Utahns support the move. Others, including many lawmakers, don’t like the plan.
Utahns for Ethical Government wants to create an independent commission to review ethics complaints from other lawmakers or the public. The group would be politically independent, with Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature unanimously selecting a pool of people, of which five would be chosen at random to serve.
The commission would have subpoena powers but would only provide recommendations, with final authority still resting with the Legislature, which is required under the state Constitution.
The proposal would limit contributions to $2,500 from individuals, $5,000 from political action committees and would eliminate contributions from businesses. The plan also would close the loopholes for lobbying by preventing lawmakers from serving in such a role until after they have been out of office for two years.
The commission would screen complaints to eliminate frivolous claims. Its meetings would be subject to open meetings laws. And the documents it generates would be subject to the state’s open-records laws.
The proposal is a good first step toward making sure elected officials’ actions are scrutinized in public, especially after a screening process conducted by an independent commission.
The only hesitation is whether this move goes far enough. For example, contributions may be eliminated from companies, and PACs may have a limit that doesn’t exist now. But more PACs can be created. And the Legislature still would act as judge and jury on any complaint, which doesn’t sit well with some Utahns.
The Legislature’s interim committee has been working on a plan of its own, which would create a commission comprised of three retired judges and two retired lawmakers to consider complaints behind closed doors. Any complaints determined to have merit would be forwarded to the accused lawmaker’s ethics committee for a public trial.
Again, this is a positive step, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Utahns have grown tired of money translating into influence. They want more transparency in all areas of government. Ethics reform will help satisfy that desire.
The lawmakers’ plan is too deficient. The Utahns for Ethical Government plan, while not perfect, is a positive step and deserves serious consideration.
It’s pretty clear why Utah’s legislators are proposing their version of an independent ethics committee. They fear a lot more ethics reform is coming from voters next fall. Maybe, legislators are thinking, if we pass this little bit of ethics reform, we can convince voters we don’t need the more serious reform.
Here’s what a legislative interim study committee came up with. To be fair, it goes farther than previous ethics initiatives hatched by lawmakers. It may also be revised in committee or during debate next year. It would form an independent ethics commission made up of two former lawmakers and three retired judges. All complaints against legislators would be reviewed in secret. If a complaint was leaked to the public, it would be dropped.
In order for a charge to be made public, the panel would have to vote 5-0 or 4-1 in support of the charges. A majority 3-2 vote wouldn’t be enough. If there was a 5-0 or 4-1 vote, the commission would pass the now-public complaint on to the appropriate ethics committee, House or Senate. Eventually the entire chamber, House or Senate, would vote on the ethics committee’s punishment recommendation.
This hastily hatched ethics commission bill has problems. Perhaps our biggest concern is with moving an ethics complaint with only a 4-1 and 5-0 vote by the commission. With that, there appears to be a high possibility for ethics complaints never reaching the media, and by extension, the public. Even if a complaint has teeth, it could still be suppressed and never heard with two votes out of five. Partisanship could sink transparency, in other words.
In our opinion, if the Legislature wants to pass any bill that provides a little bit more ethical accountability to lawmakers, that’s great. Utah is sorely behind other states in requiring ethical behavior from its lawmakers. However, if stricter, much-needed ethics reform is on the ballot next fall, its passage should take precedence over the mild ethics reform that is being discussed.
Utah legislators need a very cold shower in regard to ethics. Too many legislators believe it is perfectly OK to take gifts from lobbyists, use campaign cash for non-campaign expenses and dole out their campaign cash to other candidates. There are no limits on campaign contributions in Utah. Our state’s weak ethics enforcers are powerless to effect serious reform.
The tradition that has tolerated low ethical standards needs to be ended. Small, frantic reforms by lawmakers are likely too late.
A complimentary football ticket here and there. A tent, a couple of sleeping bags, a Dutch oven. And free meal after free meal after free meal.
The quarterly spending reports from lobbyists who court the Utah Legislature are trickling in, and once again lobbyists have identified the stomach as the best path to a lawmaker’s heart. Of the $10,000 in spending reported to date, more than $7,000 was for meals.
That figure will rise as more reports are filed. And lobbyist spending will increase by orders of magnitude as the 2010 legislative session draws near, and an army of paid persuaders vie to catch the ear of lawmakers.
Of course, we’d love to tell you who has been dipping their spoons in lobbyist stew. But the law has loopholes you could drive a catering truck through; loopholes designed to keep the names of most gift recipients out of the public record.
Lobbyists are only required to disclose the names of their dining guests if a meal costs $25 or more. Likewise, meals offered and served to a group of lawmakers — a legislative committee, a party caucus or even the entire Legislature — must be reported, but lobbyists don’t have to name names.
By buying legislators a meal, lobbyists buy themselves, and thus their clients, a captive audience. It’s not polite to talk with your mouth full, so lobbyists pitch and woo while lawmakers listen and chew. At best, the process is unappetizing.
While lobbyists and the people who pay them have every right to be heard, they shouldn’t be allowed to buy access. Instead, they could meet lawmakers at the office, or at the library, or on a park bench. They could ask to testify at committee hearings. There’s no need to dirty knives and forks, and give the public the perception that their elected representatives are selling their souls for sole.
For years, the public has made clear its distaste for lobbyist largesse, and its support of a gift ban. In a KSL -Deseret News poll published last month, 81 percent of respondents backed a ban on gifts from lobbyists. But lawmakers have repeatedly passed on the chance to enact a gift ban.
Now, the public can take matters into its own hands. Utahns for Ethical Government is circulating petitions to place an initiative on the election ballot that includes substantive ethics reform, including a ban on all gifts except “light refreshments,” which not even lawmakers and lobbyists can define as a four-course meal.
Then, if the petition drive is successful and the public’s opinion at the polls matches the public opinion polls, the gravy train will at long last run out of track.
Utah has long been riddled with complaints of ethics violations on the part of its legislators, but the responsibility to discipline those members has always fallen to the legislature itself.
It’s time for an independent ethics commission in Utah.
In August, a group called Utahns for Ethical Government launched a grass-roots campaign for a new ballot initiative.
According to UEG, the ballot measure establishes a non-partisan citizen ethics commission and a strict code of conduct to govern the ethical behavior of Utah legislators.
This law would establish a five-member commission with commissioners drawn at random from a list of 20 independent-minded citizens who are chosen by unanimous agreement of the president of the Senate, speaker of the House, and the two minority leaders of the Utah Legislature.
The commission would rule on issues of ethics violations and make recommendations to the legislature based on a code of conduct that would be established.
The University Journal Editorial Board supports this ballot initiative that will require Utah legislators to think twice before they accept some gifts and reduces the chance for conflicts of interest.
There have been many vocal opponents of this measure, including U.S. Representative for Utah’s 1st Congressional District Republican Rob Bishop, who claims this initative will only add to government bureaucracy.
The law, however, would establish the commissioners as non-salaried and only a small support staff as needed.
Many opponents of this ballot initiative have contended that it’s largely a democratic measure aimed at taking away the rights of the majority, despite the fact that several republicans head this campaign with broad bipartisan support including former Utah Gov. Olene Walker.
We think the new guidelines that this law would set, including citizens having a say on ethics by way of the commission, gifts to legislators and restrictions for sitting on corporate boards make this an important initiative.
We urge citizens of Utah to become informed on the issue and support this measure.
For more information visit http://www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org.
Limiting campaign contributions would limit the ability of challengers to unseat incumbents, and could discourage some contenders from stepping into the ring. So sayeth — you guessed it — the incumbents.
It’s not a winning argument. It’s not even a rational argument. And it may be disingenuous, considering the source: multiple members of the Utah Legislature’s Government Operations Committee.
Committee members last week lambasted a campaign finance reform proposal from the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy. They even had the audacity to question if reasonable limits on campaign contributions would improve the public’s trust in government and participation in the political process, the overarching goal of the Governor’s Commission.
The commission, charged with identifying the source of public cynicism that is manifested in abysmal voting rates, has recommended capping contributions from each individual or corporation at $4,000 per candidate per election cycle for statewide offices and $2,000 for legislative races.
In our view, caps on contributions are the only way to erase the perception that politicians are being bought, and to level a playing field where incumbents have decided advantages.
Incumbents have superior name recognition, thanks to news coverage of public proceedings and prior campaigns. They have visibility, accepting invitations to speak to organizations, attend picnics and ride in parades. And big donors, while they may hedge their bets by throwing a few bucks the challenger’s way, prefer to invest in a proven winner.
Because the governor’s commission is a mere advisory board, its recommendations are not binding on the Legislature. That impotence, combined with lawmakers’ knee-jerk rejection of the campaign finance proposal, makes its passage appear unlikely.
Unless the public can seize on the suggestion and use it to shame lawmakers into capping contributions, the recommendation doesn’t stand a chance.
That’s too bad. Utah is one of just four states that allows unlimited donations to political campaigns. Opinion polls have proven time and again that an overwhelming majority of Utahns — 74 percent according to a recent KSL-Deseret News poll — support reasonable caps on contributions like those proposed by the Governor’s Commission.
While lawmakers insist contributions won’t buy their allegiance or their re-election, in the eyes of the public it’s a questionable claim.
You’ll likely be approached in coming months to sign a petition to place an initiative on the 2010 general election ballot to establish a much-needed code of conduct for the Utah Legislature. The proposal, proffered by the frustrated folks at Utahns for Ethical Government, would also establish a nonpartisan, independent ethics commission to help assure lawmakers toe the line.
Before you sign, or worse, before you don’t, answer the following questions that speak to some of the specifics in the proposal:
Should state lawmakers and their family members be allowed to accept valuable gifts from paid lobbyists?
Should candidates for state offices be allowed to spend campaign contributions for personal expenses?
Should lawmakers be required to disclose financial and business interests that could create conflicts of interest when they ponder legislation?
Should corporations, unions, partnerships and nonprofit corporations be allowed to influence elections and buy access to politicians by making campaign contributions?
Should individuals and political action committees be allowed to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns?
Should lawmakers work as paid legislative lobbyists while serving?
A reasonable person who desires honest, open, responsive government would answer “no” to each of those questions. But a single “no” should be sufficient for your signature. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that an overwhelming majority of Utahns favor substantive legislative ethics reforms. And legislative sessions have repeatedly proven that when it comes to ethics reform, an overwhelming majority of Utah lawmakers couldn’t care less about the desires of their constituents. Year after year reform bills are introduced and die, and the will of the people is denied.
Already, Republican lawmakers are banding together to brand the ballot initiative as unnecessary.
At a House GOP caucus meeting this week, leadership circulated a memo criticizing the initiative, and asked members to attend public hearings and discredit the proposal.
In the Senate, leaders said the code of conduct and independent ethics commission would deter qualified individuals from seeking public office.
Frankly, that’s absurd. And it leads to one more question: If an individual is unwilling to serve because he or she would have to abide by these simple rules that encourage good government and ethical conduct, do you really want that person running for office? We thought not.
The group known as Utahns for Ethical Government is about to hold seven public hearings throughout the state as they advance their timely effort to place an ethics reform initiative on the ballot in 2010. KSL encourages Utahns to attend those hearings to learn about the initiative and to let their feelings be known.
State law requires the hearings be held before the group can begin circulating petitions and gathering signatures. Clearly, the initiative process isn’t easy. Lawmakers intentionally made it that way a few years ago out of concern such initiatives would proliferate and special interest groups would rally the citizenry to bypass the traditional lawmaking process.
KSL shares lawmakers’ general concern about excessive legislating by initiative. Sometimes, though, it becomes necessary, especially when those elected to represent the people continually and obstinately ignore the will of the people.
Such has been the case with ethics reform. Though repeatedly giving lip service to bringing greater accountability to their branch of government, lawmakers have merely dabbled around the edges without enacting meaningful and comprehensive reforms.
Now is the time to force their hand.
So, participate in the hearings and once the petitions become available, sign one. Lawmakers need to know ethics reform is one of their constituents’ highest priorities.
Utah lawmakers have set a high standard for citizens placing issues on the state ballot to discourage “government by initiative.” By and large, that’s a sensible policy. To place a matter before voters in the 2010 election, for instance, a group must collect 94,552 valid signatures. At least 10 percent of the signatures must come from people in 26 of Utah’s 29 counties.
Given the success of a citizen initiative that vanquished the Utah Legislature’s private school tuition tax credit law in 2007, there is ample evidence that properly motivated and well-financed citizen groups can place issues on the ballot and carry the day at the ballot box. As two citizen groups have launched efforts to place matters on the 2010 ballot, legislative leaders are concerned that they’re seeing the beginnings of a disturbing trend — groups circumventing the legislative process when they are interested in changing laws. The legislative process includes committee hearings, debates and votes in the House and Senate. The governor can sign legislation into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his or her signature.
With few exceptions, this process works best. But there are occasions when lawmakers, bent on a particular philosophy, refuse to do the bidding of the people. For instance, state lawmakers either can’t or won’t institute meaningful legislative ethics reforms, despite years of public opinion polls and other measures that tell us Utahns clearly want them.
So a citizen group, Utahns for Ethical Government, is taking matters into its hands. It is attempting to place on the statewide ballot an initiative that would establish a code of ethics for legislators and create an independent ethics commission to hear complaints against legislators in public. The initiative would set limits for campaign contributions and limit legislative gifts to “light refreshments of negligible value.”
This push has perturbed some state lawmakers because many of the same players who were successful in overturning the state’s private school voucher law are working on this issue. Other lawmakers say the initiative is premature because a bipartisan special ethics committee is working on the issue.
State lawmakers could fast-track that work if they are displeased with the initiative movement. But they must pass meaningful reforms. Lawmakers have nibbled around the edges of this issue in the past but they have hesitated to enact significant changes. The strongest arguments to reform legislative ethics rules and procedures were the largely ineffective closed-door ethics investigations against two state lawmakers.
If lawmakers fail to make substantive reforms, the initiative proposed by Utahns for Ethical Government provides a highly attractive alternative. Utahns should support efforts to place it on the ballot.
Count us as strong supporters of an effort by Utahns for Ethical Government to get signatures for a 2010 ballot initiative that will do what the Utah Legislature has failed to do for so long — enact ethics reform with teeth.
Kim Burningham and David Irvine have experience in the Legislature. They are the leaders of UEG, a bipartisan group founded to improve ethics in Utah. Also supporting the initiative effort is the Fair Boundaries Coalition. The FBC also wants an initiative to take the post-Census redrawing of legislative and congressional districts away from legislators and put it in the hands of an independent commission.
That proposal, which is supported by former U.S. Rep. James Hansen, is long overdue.
Frankly, it’s time voters got the chance to impose strong ethics regulations on lawmakers via the initiative process. We have waited for the Legislature to take ethics seriously. But year after year, strong ethics reform, such as a ban on gifts, is rejected. Earlier this year there was some cosmetic ethics reform passed on Capitol Hill, but it isn’t nearly enough.
The UEG ballot initiative, if approved, includes:
An independent ethics commission of five. They would be chosen by random chance from 20 names previously OK’d by a bipartisan group of legislators.
* An end to legislator/lobbyists and a two-year wait before ex-legislators could lobby.
* An end to all lobbyists gifts, save for light refreshments of virtually no value.
* And end to legislators donating campaign funds to other legislative campaigns.
* And, every two years, there is a cap of $2,500 for individual campaign donations and a $5,000 cap on political action committee donations.
There’s more. To see all the initiative proposals, go to http://www.utahethics.org.
There is a lot to do to get these reforms on the ballott. UEG is required to hold seven public meetings across the state. Initiative organizers will need to gather about 95,000 signatures. We urge Utahns to attend the public hearings, get informed about UEG’s initiative — which the Utah chapter of AARP has endorsed — and sign the initiative petition when they have the opportunity.
This is too important to sit on the sidelines. Get involved. If we don’t, it sends a clear signal to the Utah Legislature that we are enablers of its unethical behavior.
In coming months Utahns will be asked to sign a couple of initiative petitions that eventually could significantly change the state’s political landscape for the good. Citizens should not hesitate to add their signature to either petition.
One petition focuses on legislative ethics. Foremost, it would establish a non-partisan ethics commission. It would ban gifts to lawmakers, ban them from serving as lobbyists for at least two years after leaving office, and it would ban them from spending campaign funds on personal expenses.
A second initiative, if approved, would create an independent redistricting commission that would redraw Utah’s congressional and state legislative districts after the U.S. Census every ten years. As it now stands, members of the legislature determine their own boundaries, which typically results in blatant and inexcusable gerrymandering.
Obviously, getting an initiative petition on the ballot is always daunting. For each effort, at least 95,000 signatures must be gathered by next April. So, as hearings are held and petition drives undertaken, KSL urges citizens to look favorably on the effort.
For years, lawmakers have given lip-service to ethics reform, but have failed miserably to clean up their act and get their legislative house in order. If they won’t do it, the people must.
The Utah Legislature has stoutly resisted efforts by its own members to create higher standards of ethical conduct and the means to enforce them, beginning with rudimentary campaign finance reform, lobbyist restrictions and gift bans. Under the Utah Constitution, only one other group can make law to fill this void: the people.
Enter Utahns for Ethical Government. This newly formed group has filed an initiative petition to create a legislative code of conduct and an independent ethics commission to enforce it. Included are a ban on legislators accepting all gifts except light refreshments, a ban on lobbyists serving in the Legislature, a two-year cooling-off period before former legislators can serve as lobbyists, a ban on corporate campaign contributions, limits on campaign contributions from individuals and political action committees, and a requirement that legislators disclose financial and business interests that create potential conflicts of interests. All of these reforms are long overdue.
The petition itself includes an eloquent statement of intent. “It has become evident over the years that the Legislature has been unwilling to enact enforceable ethical standards of conduct or a workable process for enforcing its own rules. Forty states have some form of an independent ethics commission; Utah does not. A troubling, parallel development is that lobbyists and special interests are free to inject unlimited amounts of corporate money into Utah’s political system, often by invitation from legislators who, again and again, go back to the same contributors for … donations to personal projects, committees, caucuses, and leadership campaigns. These donors are often the very people and companies who regularly have matters of significant private profit requiring legislative action, and it is contrary to human nature to expect that such transactions are nothing more than friends helping friends in the grand cause of better government.”
Amen to that.
Forty-four states limit campaign contributions to legislators. Utah does not, so we get the best Legislature money can buy. The initiative would limit individual contributions to $2,500 per election cycle; $5,000 for political action committees.