Gov. Gary Herbert met for the first time Thursday with backers of a legislative ethics reform initiative, expressing support for their goals, but not retracting his previously announced opposition to the proposed ballot measure.
Herbert said the issue deserves further study and debate.
"We'd like a piece of legislation we can all salute," the governor said.
The governor last week said he had done some research and could not support the 21-page initiative that, if passed by voters next year, could bring big change to Utah's political landscape.
The proposed ballot measure, compiled by Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG), would establish a specific legislative code of conduct and a five-member independent advisory commission to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.
It would also impose campaign contribution caps -- Utah has none at present -- ban lobbyist gifts and prohibit legislators from becoming paid lobbyists within two years of leaving office.
Herbert, along with several legislators, fears the measure is over-reaching, flawed and could ultimately fail a constitutional challenge.
At one point, Herbert asked UEG members if it's fair to have an unelected tribunal convict a legislator of a felony.
"This bill does not criminalize anything," countered Alan Smith, an attorney who helped draft the initiative.
The proposed ethics commission could recommend certain disciplinary actions but not convict, Smith added. That task would be left to lawmakers, as mandated by the Utah Constitution.
"We're facing a lot of misperceptions that are coming basically from legislators," initiative backer Kim Burningham said following the gubernatorial chat. "I appreciate the governor's willingness to talk about those issues."
Last week Burningham said initiative organizers had attempted but failed to get a meeting with Herbert before he took a public position on the proposal.
Herbert said Thursday he strives to be accessible to all sides of important issues and had not intentionally shunned the initiative supporters.
Now in the signature-gathering stage, the initiative has put pressure on the Legislature to come up with its own ethics reforms.
The Legislature's Ethics Committee is expected to bring forward draft legislation for consideration in January -- and an advisory ethics commission is under serious discussion as part of that measure.
However, some lawmakers have been holding town hall meetings and distributing information against the citizens' initiative, in hopes of deterring constituents from signing on.
Initiative supporters need to gather 95,000 valid voter signatures statewide by April 15 to land the measure on the 2010 ballot.
Burningham said the petition drive is well under way and that donations so far to UEG's Political Issues Committee have totaled $10,000 to $15,000.
Gov. Gary Herbert met Thursday with ethics reform initiative organizers, but did not back down from his publicly stated opposition to the measure.
More information about the initiative can be found at http://www.utahethics.org