Constitutional amendment clears committee

Published February 1, 2010 6:56 pm

Ethics commission » Bill to establish independent review panel could nullify citizen initiative.
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A bill that aims to establish Utah's first independent ethics commission -- and enshrine it in the state Constitution -- unanimously cleared the House Ethics Committee on Monday.

But not before people noticed the giant legal question the new statute would raise.

HJR15, sponsored by Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, would require a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate to advance the constitutional question to voters in November.

"This is a critical step and one that I hope will strengthen our Legislature," Clark said, "and continue to strengthen our position in the public's eye."

But Dixie Huefner -- of the Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) group sponsoring a broad ethics initiative that includes an independent commission -- says the Legislature could use some outside help to boost its public image.

"Ordinarily we look to our representatives to represent us," Huefner said. "This is one of those times that the Legislature has been so slow ... it has done so little in the way of substantive ethics reform that citizens got tired of waiting."

UEG must gather 95,000 voter signatures by April 15 to get its measure on the ballot this fall.

The two proposed commissions differ enough that most lawmakers, including Clark, strongly oppose UEG's proposal.

However, both panels would be advisory only because the state Constitution assigns the task of disciplining lawmakers to the body to which they belong.

Clark and others have said they prefer a constitutional amendment establishing the advisory committee to show how serious they are. But Huefner voiced concerns that the c onstitutional amendment is unnecessary, would confuse the public, and if successful, would block any future initiative drives dealing with ethics complaints and commissions.

If both the UEG ballot measure and the constitutional amendment won voter approval, legal authorities believe the resulting confusion would almost certainly land the issue in Utah's high court to sort out.

"This is the first time I'm aware of in Utah history where you have a constitutional provision and a statute that both attempt to address the same thing," said John Fellows, general counsel for the Legislature. "So the courts have been silent on how those would actually merge."

However, constitutional provisions typically rule over statute, Fellows said.

That fact concerns Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

"Mr. Fellows has indicated today that the effect of that language [in HJR15] will be to insulate future legislatures and independent commissions from being altered by citizen initiative or referendum," King said.

"We need to take a closer look at that between now and the time we debate this measure on the floor," King added.

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Other ethics bills

Also advanced by the House Ethics Committee on Monday:

Rep. Greg Hughes' HJR14 woulod expand financial disclosure for lawmakers.

Also sponsored by Hughes, HB270 would require candidates to file personal financial disclosures when filing to run for office.

Rep. Kevin Garn's HB267 would ban gifts over $10 except for meals and approved meetings. Meal expenditures over $10 would be reported by name.

Rep. Tim Cosgrove's HB124 would define personal use expenditures and prohibit candidates and officeholders from using campaign funds for personal use.

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