Utah Legislature: Vote up or down — conflict or not
Conflicts of interest • On Utah’s Capitol Hill, there is no abstaining; members must vote even if bills directly affect them.
Published: February 24, 2014 11:37AM
Updated: February 24, 2014 07:15AM
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Courtesy image. Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, says the state would be better served by a loophole-free ban on lawmakers stepping straight from public office to a lobbying job.

Rep. Johnny Anderson stood and declared a conflict of interest, a rare act in the Utah Legislature. The House was debating whether to give grants to preschools to expand services for at-risk kids, and Anderson is a partner in a preschool that could benefit.

But he voted on the bill anyway.

He had no choice.

Utah law requires it. Utah and Oregon are the only two states where members cannot abstain, and are required to vote even if they have a major conflict of interest.

“I probably would have abstained if I could,” says Anderson, R-Taylorsville. “I think it makes sense to let people abstain, and then get up and explain why. Then it’s on the record.”

That situation annually leads to debates about how well the Legislature controls conflicts of interest. Lawmakers have full-time jobs elsewhere, so almost any bill directly affects someone in the group of attorneys, doctors, lawyers, bankers, real-estate brokers, electricians, insurance agents, ranchers and teachers, among many other professions.

Analysis by The Tribune shows that one of every five bills this year is sponsored by someone with a potential conflict of interest with it — or, depending on one’s view, special expertise ­— because of their regular jobs. Conflicts also have become part of major debates on such issues as whether to move the state prison or undo the Count My Vote initiative .

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, is again pushing legislation, HR2, to allow lawmakers to abstain or vote “present.” But he and leaders do not expect it to go far, again. In part, that’s because leaders see conflicts as natural in a citizen legislature, and worry that creating more pressure to declare them and skip votes could get out of hand.

Ethics reformers disagree — and say a better system is needed.

How it works • Currently, Utah legislators are required to fill out conflict-of-interest forms before the Legislature convenes, listing their employers, boards they serve on, property owned, their spouse’s employer and anything else they see as a potential conflict.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, takes a broad view. “I am a member of the human race and a citizen of Utah, all of what the Legislature deals with will have a direct or indirect impact, either positively or negatively upon myself and my family,” he wrote on his form.

He also listed working in insurance and being a concealed-carry permit instructor, and has introduced legislation affecting those areas this year.

As long as a potential conflict is listed on the form (which can be found online if you know where to look), rules do not require members to declare it verbally in any debates or votes.

If a conflict comes up that is not addressed on disclosure forms, rules say members should declare it verbally.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, is among leaders who see that system as sufficiently transparent and maybe overly so. “Sometimes we declare a conflict when we really don’t need to declare it,” he says.

Maryann Martindale disagrees.

“I would question whether most citizens even know the conflict-of-interest forms exist,” says the executive director of the reformist Alliance for a Better Utah. “No one ever looks at them. It’s a pain to find them on the [legislative] website.”

So she says one of two things is needed: Either allow abstaining with explanations, or enact “some kind of rule that requires them to stand and state a conflict of interest” to make them apparent.

“That’s just transparent government,” Martindale says.

Conflicts • To illustrate how many potential conflicts occur, The Tribune compared all bills introduced this year with written conflict-of-interest statements filed by sponsors.

It identified at least 114 bills — about one of every five filed so far — with likely conflicts of interest, or special expertise, by sponsors. Some examples:

• Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, owns the Cache Title Co. He has introduced five bills dealing with title insurance or liens or operations of county recorders.

• Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is a pharmacist. He introduced SB55, the Pharmaceutical Dispensing Amendments, and other legislation to amend the list of controlled substances.

• Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, both own insurance agencies. Between them, they have sponsored five bills dealing with insurance.

• Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, is president of ELKAY Consulting, which consults on building code issues. He sponsored HB107, Fire Code Amendments.

• Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, sponsored a bill seeking to close a loophole in drunken driving laws, one to promote wearing seat belts and another to amend vehicle-impound laws.

• Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. He sponsored SB19 to change the qualifications of members of the State Tax Commission, and SB65, Sales and Use Tax Exemption Modifications.

• Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntville, owns a real estate brokerage. He introduced HB332, Real Estate Amendments, along with other legislation related to housing and land use.

• At least 50 bills affect elections, campaigns, or legislative and ethics rules. All, of course, are sponsored by lawmakers affected by them.

One much-debated example of this is Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is pushing SB54 that would nullify the Count My Vote ballot initiative to require direct primaries to select party nominees. All current legislators were chosen through the present system using caucuses to select delegates, who may choose nominees at conventions.

In another high-profile example, House Republicans have endorsed moving the state prison, which would open up the opportunity for lucrative development at the present Draper prison site. At least 21 House members have professional ties to real estate or development, including bill sponsor Brad Wilson, a developer. (As a member of the board that studied the feasibility of relocation, Wilson is barred from profiting from the project).

Debate • Nielson says his proposal “gives you the choice to abstain when you feel uncomfortable.”

He notes that not only do 48 states allow abstaining, “Half of those that allow it actually require you to abstain when you have a conflict.”

Still, House Majority Leader Dee worries things could get out of hand “if we all start declaring conflicts of interest and not voting for everything that may affect a normal citizen,” since virtually all such votes also affect some lawmakers.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, adds that leaders worry members may use the ability to abstain to dodge tough votes. “It’s been a concern forever.”

Nielson says some members already duck tough votes anyway by walking out of the chamber. “The problem with walking is it is not transparent. No one knows if you are legitimately absent, or if you have left the chamber in order not to vote.”

Dee said some members worry that allowing abstaining could lead to political attacks if they fail to do so and have stated minor conflicts.

Nielson said those criticisms already occur. “[The system is] broken because whenever I talk to my constituents about this, they are blown away by the notion that we don’t have a choice,” he said.

Martindale agrees, and says the change Nielson seeks would make it easier for the public to assess if lawmakers with professional expertise are involved in an issue “for personal profit or it actually is because they have a unique insight that can help the discussion.”

A hearing before the House Rules Committee is scheduled Monday for Nielson’s legislation. It received one last year before the same committee, but members voted 11-0 then to hold the bill and refer it for possible interim study during the year — which did not occur.

Public hearing on rule allowing lawmakers to abstain

The House Rules Committee will consider HR2 in a meeting scheduled Monday beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the State Capitol, Room 415. The proposal is fifth on the agenda.