No vote on Utah conflict of interest bill thanks to rule technicality
Ethics • Sponsor claims unfair treatment on bill that would allow lawmakers to abstain.
Published: February 24, 2014 07:25PM
Updated: February 25, 2014 07:27AM

The House Rules committee found a way Monday to skip a tough vote on legislation that, paradoxically, leaders say could allow too many members to skip other tough votes. It was a move that infuriated one ethics-reform minded legislator.

Currently, Utah and Oregon are the only states that require legislators to vote — with no option to abstain — even if they have a major conflict of interest. HR2 would allow abstaining.

Ethics-reform groups say that would likely lead to better disclosure of conflicts of interest and more ethical behavior. But leaders see conflicts as natural in a citizen legislature where everyone has other jobs, and worry that creating more pressure to declare conflicts and skip votes could get out of hand.

The committee avoided voting on HR2 Monday by saying House rules ban it from voting after the full House is scheduled to convene. It made that ruling at 2:10 p.m., ten minutes after the House was scheduled to convene at 2 p.m. But the House did not actually begin until 12 minutes later.

“This isn’t fair,” Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, the sponsor of HR2, complained to Rules Committee Chairman Dean Sanpei, R-Provo. He noted the committee did not begin its meeting until 1:30 p.m., then heard four other bills before allowing him to speak just a couple minutes before 2.

Sanpei told Nielson he was unsure if the committee would hold another public hearing, and not certain it would vote on HR2. Nielson said if the committee does not take another vote, he will ask for a vote of the full House to pull the bill from the committee directly to the House floor for action.

“But it may not pass even if that succeeds,” Nielson said. “People depend on work of committees to guide them.”

The Tribune on Monday published a story examining conflicts in the Utah Legislature — including finding that one of every five bills this year is sponsored by lawmakers who have conflicts, or specialized experience, because of their regular jobs.

“This is an ethics bill. It is important and deserves to be heard on the floor,” Nielson said.

The committee also voted 6-3 to approve SJR7 by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, to alter “constitutional notes” placed on bills when legislative analysts worry they may be unconstitutional. It would allow additional notes to advise on whether and how the bill could help Utah in its fight to protect the rights of states against the federal government.In other action, the committee unanimously endorsed a rules change to ban fundraising on the House floor. House Democratic Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said last year some members started distributing flyers inviting members to fundraising events — which she said is inappropriate.Nielson said lawmakers can avoid tough votes now “by taking a walk” out of the chamber. “But that isn’t transparent,” and people don’t know if they left for a legitimate reason or were simply fleeing.Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said abstentions might allow more lawmakers to avoid tough votes, and perhaps make it tough to find majorities needed in those cases — a view stated by leaders in previous years.