Members of the grass-roots group, Utahns for Ethical Government, took their reform message to Capitol Hill Wednesday, unveiling a ballot initiative they hope will accomplish what legislators have not yet done themselves.
Former lawmakers Kim Burningham and David Irvine -- both Republicans and vocal opponents of the now-overturned school voucher law -- led the charge to tighten existing ethics policies.
"Our system is riddled with laws and the absence of laws, which not only allow but encourage unethical behavior in our Legislature," said Burningham, a state Board of Education member.
Burningham cited Utah as one of 10 states that lack an independent ethics commission. Instead, lawmakers police their own. He also decried the absence of caps on campaign contributions.
The initiative's chief thrust -- if approved by majority vote in 2010 -- is to establish a five-member independent commission to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers and make subsequent recommendations to the legislative body.
Rep. John Dougall, co-chairman of the Ethics Interim Committee, said he welcomes the public involvement but questions some of the initiative's aims.
"Only the politically connected get appointed to these commissions," Dougall said. "When they're beholden to someone to appoint them, independence is lost."
The initiative would also end the flow of corporate contributions to legislative candidates and impose caps of $2,500 on individual donations and $5,000 on contributions from political action committees over each two-year period.
Notably, it would also ban all lobbyist gifts of meals and admission to events, allowing lawmakers to accept only "light refreshments of negligible value."
"I have no concerns with that," Dougall said. Gift bans have previously passed in the House, only to die in the Senate.
However, Dougall believes that the group -- now more than 300 strong -- is missing the real problem.
"The bigger the government's scope, the greater the chance of corruption," Dougall said.
In the noonday sun, Rob Ence, executive director of Utah's 220,000-plus member AARP, threw the nonprofit organization's support behind the volunteer initiative drive.
"We do this not just for our members but for our children and our grandchildren," Ence said. "We believe that influence should come from the voice of the people and by the ballot box."
Following the Capitol steps announcement, initiative organizers filed the petition with Lt. Gov.-designee Greg Bell and now must hold seven public hearings across the state and gather close to 95,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2010 ballot.
Establish a five-member independent ethics commission chosen randomly from 20 names unanimously approved by the Senate president, House speaker and two minority leaders.
Prohibit lawmakers from donating campaign funds to other legislative candidates.
Ban legislator-lobbyists, also require a two-year cool-down before former lawmakers become paid lobbyists.
Ban lobbyist gifts except for "light refreshments of negligible value."
Ban lawmakers from exerting influence on courts and employees in state agencies.
Nix campaign contributions from corporations, nonprofits, partnerships and unions.
Cap individual campaign donations at $2,500, Political Action Committee donations at $5,000 in a two-year cycle
Prevent legislators from serving as paid members on corporate boards when their elected positions contributed to their appointments.
For more information » http://www.utahethics.org
Source » Utahns for Ethical Government