Utah Legislature: Ethics overhaul advances
The Utah House on Thursday approved a set of ethics bills -- including an independent commission to review citizen complaints -- that leaders said should make clear to voters that they're serious about policing their own.
The bills would also restrict lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, shrink the dollar amount of financial interest in companies that lawmakers can have without reporting it, restrict personal use of campaign funds, and force candidates as well as officeholders to declare conflicts.
"When I was elected speaker, I pledged that we would try to do things differently here in the Legislature," said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara. "These bills are a major step in that journey."
An independent panel recommending disciplinary action to the House and Senate, Clark said, would boost the public's perception of Capitol Hill.
Backers of a grass-roots ethics initiative issued a statement praising lawmakers for "decisive action" on ethics. But they criticized the proposed constitutional amendment mandating an ethics commission, saying it leaves too much power with partisan legislative leaders, said Dixie Huefner of Utahns for Ethical Government.
"Their version is going to make it terribly hard to ever have a complaint go forward," Huefner said.
"HJR15," her groups said in its statement, "is a direct assault on the part of our checks and balances system that allows citizens to guard against legislative abuses."
The proposal passed 69-3.
The House also passed bills limiting lobbyist gifts to legislators to $10, requiring lawmaker disclose financial interests above $5,000 instead of the current $10,000 and require a statement of conflicts by candidates as well as officeholders.
The $10 gift ban, found in HB267, exempts meals but requires disclosure by name of any lobbyist buying a lawmaker a meal that costs more than $10.
The measure will dispel public fears of secret meetings and gift taking, said Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton. "This bill changes the way we do business."
HJR14 requires disclosure of financial interests above $5,000. HB270 requires the conflict statements. All of the bills cleared the House easily.
All the bills now go to the Senate, where they could face tougher treatment.
The Senate Republican Caucus has endorsed the proposed constitutional amendment, but has so far been unable to reach agreement on the other measures.
"We'll certainly deliberate on them and make sure we understand what's in them and that they are correct. We don't want any unforeseen consequences," said Senate President Michael Waddoups.
Several legislators asked Clark whether his bill was meant to supersede the initiative that may be on the same statewide ballot in November. He said it was not, although the Utah Constitution takes precedence.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he supported the bill because it allowed the other portions of the voter initiative to move forward.
"This takes us in a very positive direction," King said.
The House on Thursday also passed HB124, a ban on diverting campaign funds for personal use.
After the bills passed, Garn said he hopes the public notes that the permanence of a constitutional amendment shows lawmakers' sincere desire for transparency in government.
"We're doing what we think is in the best interests of the state," he said. "The constitutional amendment is a signal that we're serious."
Robert Gehrke and Cathy McKitrick contributed to this report.