Lawmakers work to win ethics war

Published March 1, 2010 7:46 pm

Politics » Reforms by Legislature may overwhelm push by citizen activists on initiative front.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In addition to repeatedly putting the federal government on notice this Legislative session, state lawmakers are also sending a message to citizen activists to back off and leave ethics reform to elected office-holders on Capitol Hill.

During the past five weeks, legislators have advanced a cadre of ethics reforms, which are the result of several months of interim study, recommendations from the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy and a nagging awareness that a broad citizens initiative nips at their heels.

The Legislature's flagship effort, an independent ethics commission, emerged after months of denouncing a similar panel that the group Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) hopes to install by way of a ballot initiative this November.

So state lawmakers are coupling their commission to a resolution that cements their will into the state Constitution. That amendment could also go to voters this fall if HJR15 wins a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate.

Tossed into this mix is a concerted effort to cut the legs out from under UEG's petition drive. The group needs to gather 95,000 valid voter signatures statewide by April 15.

SB275, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, would eliminate a requirement that a person make a notary-certified request to remove their names from an initiative or referendum petition that they signed. Stephenson argues it should be as easy to take a name off as it is to put it on. In committee, he derided petition passers as "hucksters" who snag uninformed passersby, sell them "motherhood and apple pie" and get them to sign their petitions.

"It's an interesting dynamic," said Matthew Burbank, political science professor at the University of Utah.

"On the one hand, you have the Legislature responding to concerns prompted by the citizens initiative," Burbank said. "They realized they really need to do something --- and that can be a very good thing."

Initiatives and referendums tend to be "blunt instruments at best," Burbank added. But Stephenson's bill raises some questions.

"It makes you think that what they're doing on the ethics front is less about responding to citizens," Burbank said, "and more about making sure they're in control of the ethics process."

While initiative backers have until mid-April to gather the requisite names, Stephenson's measure would give opponents an extra month to contact individuals and persuade them to vacate their support.

Influential and well-organized opponents have lined up to help waylay UEG's petition drive. The conservative Sutherland Institute, Utah's Eagle Forum and the state Republican Party have come out against the citizens measure that threatens to shake things up on Capitol Hill.

"We had nothing to do with Stephenson's bill," said Dave Hansen, Utah's GOP chairman. "But I'm glad he did it."

Whether the party faithful launch a ground offensive this spring to sink the initiative depends on the strength of the initiative's groundswell.

"It depends on whether it's worth the effort," Hansen said. "We would be more likely to do it if they just get a few signatures over."

Since electronic signatures are valid for several government transactions, UEG and other initiative groups began accepting them online in January. But a recent ruling from the Lieutenant Governor put that option off-limits.

"We're collecting both kinds," said UEG's Dixie Huefner. "If we have electronic signatures, we can find those people and get their names on paper."

The group now has thousands of volunteers, Huefner said, but none of them get paid to gather names. UEG signed a form to that effect when they first filed their initiative with the Lieutenant Governor.

According to their Web site, http://www.utahethics.org" Target="_BLANK">http://www.utahethics.org, 15 organizations --- Utah AARP, the Utah League of Women Voters, the Utah Education Association and the Coalition of Religious Communities among them -- have endorsed UEG's effort.

A recent UEG tweet hints at a widening campaign: "Coming to a bumper near you: I'm an ethics huckster. How about you?"

Huefner expressed surprise over the extent of the Legislature's push-back.

"We did not anticipate that they would be so frightened, so scared that they'd have to go full bore like this," Huefner said. "We must be doing something important that's worth pursuing."

Some lawmakers have said the current ethics storm is a public-perception problem whipped up by the media, but others had hoped to go further with some reforms. So achieving consensus on the current ethics package is seen as significant progress.

"We spent the whole summer working on it," Valentine told House colleagues Monday. "We've made significant changes ... it's been a long and worthwhile journey."

But Huefner calls it "very small steps" and remains skeptical about the Legislature's overall motivation.

"The Constitutional amendment is their most aggressive strategy -- to make it look like they're trying to do something wonderful," Huefner added, "but they're actually enshrining their control over their own behavior."

Whether the Legislature's Constitutional amendment nullifies the entire UEG initiative -- should voters approve both in November -- is still unclear but appears to be a question that the courts could eventually have to answer.

Members of the ad hoc Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy met several times last year to seek remedies for voter apathy and lack of public engagement in the state's political process.

"What we're seeing is modest reform," Commission member Randy Dryer said of the Legislature's efforts.

Last fall Dryer, an attorney who specializes in public policy and campaign finance law, drafted a set of campaign contribution limits that garnered majority Commission support.

But after striking a "gentlemen's agreement" with legislative leaders, Dryer said members replaced his proposal with one favoring less-restrictive limits. Those were part of Rep. Ben Ferry's HB329, which was gutted Monday in its first public hearing.

A Tribune poll conducted in January found that 78 percent favored contribution caps, 12 percent opposed them and 10 percent were undecided.

Until March 11, the ball is in the Legislature's court.

"The best way to counter the ethics initiative is to pass meaningful reform," Dryer said. "At this point they seem to be more interested in putting up road blocks."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">cmckitrick@sltrib.com

The Legislature's ethics reforms -- where they're at:

» SJR3, independent ethics commission and complaint procedure, passed Senate, headed to final House vote

» SB36, restricts ethics commission to closed-door complaint review, passed Senate, headed to final House vote.

» SB138, classifies all records connected with the commission's complaint review as private and off-limits to the public, passed Senate, headed to final House vote

» HJR15, sponsored by House Speaker David Clark, enshrines the new ethics commission and rules in the state Constitution, passed the House 70-3, cleared the Senate Ethics Committee 8-0 and now awaits full Senate debate.

» HB267 bans lobbyist gifts over $10 except for meals and attendance at larger group activities, raises lobbyist filing fee from $25 to $100, expands disclosure requirements. It cleared the House 69-1, advanced 8-0 out of the Senate Ethics Committee and now awaits full Senate debate.

» HB329 is broad legislation that, among other things, would impose Utah's first campaign contribution caps and expand various disclosure requirements. This bill was stripped of donation limits in committee.

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
comments powered by Disqus