As the 2010 Legislative Session gets underway, my state senator and representatives say they are collecting information from their constituents. Our household received a survey from them last week.
The first clue that this might not be a survey to collect real attitudes and opinions was that the Utah Republican Party paid for the survey. This suspicion is confirmed as soon as the recipient reads the questions. Bad news is introduced with “Due to the economic downturn,” and good news with “Due to wise fiscal management”.
Opinions are interspersed with the questions. Such as: (Do you support or oppose) steps to opt out of provisions that would raise taxes and harm businesses if a ‘Cap and Trade’ agreement passes congress?”
The final question deals with the legislative ethics initiative. There are six statements that the survey asks the voter to check if they agree. There is no space for explanations or exceptions.
The first is “I prefer having laws made through the legislative process with public hearings rather than by initiative.” Of course, we all prefer the legislative process over walking petitions around. There is, however, a constitutional right to petition government when the elected representatives ignore the will of the people. The current initiatives are two such cases.
The second statement is “I am aware that the initiative creates and (sic) Ethics Commission that has not (sic) accountability to the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branch (sic) and that its decision cannot be appealed.” How do you agree or disagree that you are aware of a falsehood? The commission is legislative staff chosen by the legislators themselves. The question of accountability comes because the legislators do not control their decisions. The decisions they make are whether to forward a complaint to the Ethics Committee — a committee of legislators — who will hear and rule on the complaint. A ruling may be appealed. Why should a decision to hear the complaint need to be appealed?
The third statement is “I am aware that the Ethics Commission would consist of members who have life time appointments.” Again, how can you state you are aware of a falsehood? Commission members serve five year terms with staggered dates of replacement.
The fourth statement is “I have/would sign (sic) the 21 page Citizens Ethics Initiative without reading it.” Is this an attempt to intimidate? It shouldn’t be, since the writers of this survey obviously haven’t read the initiative.
The fifth statement is “I would prefer laws that create an increased transparency in lobbyist activities?” The State of Utah can dump a pile of data onto the website, calling it transparency, and it would be far more obscure to voters than having the legislators sign a code of conduct.
The last statement is “I think campaign contributions should be capped notwithstanding that such a cap could prevent citizens in lower income brackets from running for office.” A cap would indeed prevent a candidate from running a campaign financed solely by a few special interest groups. This, unfortunately, is common practice. To have a campaign financed by constituents who believe in the candidate, is an opportunity for the candidate to talk to these constituents and really hear what they think. If the Ethics initiative accomplished just this much, it would be worthwhile.
I have decided not to send in the survey. It will not tell my representatives anything about what I think. But then again, it wasn’t meant to.
The Utah Republican Party made it official last Saturday; It opposes an ethics initiative currently being circulated by a group known as Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG). In the resolution passed by the GOP’s central committee, the Utah Republican Party cites constitutional concerns with UEG’s ballot initiative and the fact the legislature has already passed some ethics reforms, and more is on the way.
What the Utah GOP keeps overlooking is the fact ethics reform wouldn’t be on the ballot at all if the Republican controlled legislature had taken advantage of numerous attempts to reform itself. Up until last year’s legislative session, there was virtually no movement on ethics reform. It took evidence of growing public disgust with the way business was being conducted on Capitol Hill to get a handful of relatively weak reform measures passed. Fear of UEG’s ballot initiative appears likely to have the same effect on the legislature in 2010.
In a draft Joint Resolution on Ethics Complaint Procedures circulated during a recent interim committee meeting, yet another reform is being proposed in hopes any effort by the citizens of Utah to take matters into their own hands can be derailed. This joint resolution would create an independent ethics commission, but the commission would only be empowered to recommend the House or Senate Ethics Committee take up a complaint against one or more representatives or senators.
The chair of the commission and the chairs of the House and Senate Ethics Committee are given extraordinary powers to “set time limitations on any part of a meeting or hearing authorized” by the resolution. Depending on the amount of time a committee chair allows for arguments, this could make it difficult to impossible for either complainants or defendants to make their case before the commission or the relevant legislative ethics committee.
In addition, citizens or legislators may only file a complaint against a sitting legislator if at least two citizens/legislators submit the complaint and one of those has “actual knowledge of the facts and circumstances supporting each allegation.” In other words, while citizens or fellow legislators may have substantial evidence of ethical violations, unless they actually witnessed or were a party to the wrong doing – and they would have to be one or the other to have “actual knowledge” – they can’t ask either the independent ethics commission or one of the two legislative ethics committees to look into the matter. How convenient.
In the proposed resolution legislators also shield themselves from any complaint filed within 60 days of an election. So, if evidence comes to light – excuse me – if “actual knowledge” of an ethical problem comes to light or if a violation of ethical standards actually occurs within two months of Election Day, don’t count on the ethics commission or legislative committees looking into it.
But in their effort to shield themselves from accountability while still appearing concerned about ethics, the Republican controlled legislature seems poised to go much further than prohibiting ethics complaints within 60 days of an election. Under the draft resolution, unless the independent ethics commission created by it refers a complaint to one of the two legislative ethics committees for possible further action, no one can reveal a complaint was even filed.
“Except as provided in Subsection (1)(b) or (c), a person, including the complainants, the respondent, commission members, a committee chair or vice chair, or staff to the commission or a committee, may not disclose the existence of a complaint, a response, nor any information concerning any alleged violation that is the subject of a complaint.”
Subsections (1)(b) and (c) refer to a response which is “publicly released by the commission and referred to an ethics committee” and “disclosing facts or allegations about potential criminal violations to law enforcement authorities” respectively. Subsection (2) goes on to state any revelation to the press or public a complaint has been filed not covered by one of the above two exceptions, would put the leaker in potential “contempt of the Legislature”.
Whatever flaws are allegedly contained within the ethics reform initiative currently circulating, Republicans on Capitol Hill have no one but themselves to blame for the fact it got to the point citizens felt the need to take matters into their own hands. Proposing another weak piece of “reform” legislation shielding legislators from public scrutiny when ethical questions arise does nothing to address public doubts legislators take ethics seriously. If the goal is to do ethics reform better than the initiative and render it moot, lawmakers have a long way to go.
During the early summer of 2007, the Utah County Republican Party was in need of a float for the parade season coming up. Senators John Valentine and Curt Bramble asked Mountainlands Applied Technology School administrators if the school could build a float for the Republicans. This conversation took place in the middle of a meeting discussing the school’s funding. That funding is determined by the state legislature and, at that time, Valentine and Bramble served, respectively, as Senate president and majority leader.
Not surprisingly, the president of the school, Robert Brems, recruited the school’s instructors to work full time on building a float for the Republican party. After it was finished, Representative Becky Lockhart picked up the float.
When word of this breach of legislative ethics and improper use of taxpayer resources leaked out, the chair of the board of trustees for the school quickly paid for the float out of his own funds. An internal investigation by the Utah Board of Regents found that Brems had acted improperly. He resigned under pressure in the wake of the float controversy and other improprieties. Even though three state legislators were involved in the improper use of state funds, including two of whom actually initiated the request, only the school’s president was punished.
I know, it’s a parade float, so who cares, right? But this, to me, is the most important example of the challenges to ethical behavior in the Utah legislature. An internal investigation was conducted by the Utah Board of Regents. From the legislature? Huh? What impropriety?! Hey look over there! A liberal!
It’s an unsexy issue without far reaching or very damaging consequences, but it was inappropriate and “only the school’s president was punished.” At several public meetings and in person I’ve heard state legislators out campaigning against the UEG initiative saying (basically): “We don’t need an ethics commission… if we’re unethical, vote us out!”
Quaint. And a valuable argument, to a point. But it also greatly oversimplifies the situation. Using this example provided by Utah County Democrats, I still ask the legislators in opposition to an independent commission, what if voters never find out? What if the legislature actively ensures that voters never find out?
The legislature’s response to the example provided (i.e. nothing) proves that voters often don’t. So the “just vote us out” becomes almost an insult to voters, not a defense of maintaining a status quo.