The Republican-dominated Utah House of Representatives shined during this past year when it oversaw an investigation that found several ethical and legal violations were committed by Republican Attorney General John Swallow.
Much of the muck, House-appointed investigators found, centered around dark campaign money that was deliberately laundered through various PACs to hide the source of the cash.
So the rally cry went out and several ethics bills were proffered to bring more transparency to the electoral process and make it more difficult for special interests to engineer an election without disclosing their involvement or their motives.
One such bill was SB97, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross and carried in the House by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
It attempted to remove a loophole in campaign reporting laws that currently allows connected and well-funded lobbyists to work on behalf of candidates vying for vacated positions in mid-term without disclosing their involvement.
Those vacancies occur frequently in the Legislature — slightly less than a third of the current Legislature were appointed to fill mid-term openings. Two mid-term vacancies were filled in the House just this year.
The law previously required the delegates from the affected district to send three names to the governor. But in 1997, when a vacancy occurred in Provo, Becky Lockhart was the overwhelming choice of the delegates in that district. Gov. Mike Leavitt, however, picked Provo Police Chief Swen Nielsen to fill the vacancy. Nielsen actually had placed third in the delegate vote and the next year, in the general election, Lockhart defeated Nielsen and now she is speaker of the House.
Feeling Leavitt had disrespected the party’s wishes, the Legislature changed the law to require just two names sent to the governor.
Then in 2007, when a vacancy occurred again in Provo, the delegates voted for John Curtis. Second place went to Chris Herrod.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., like Leavitt before him, went against the delegates’ choice and selected Herrod, who had an unremarkable career in the House and is most famous for being part of the silly Patrick Henry Caucus. Curtis, meanwhile, has been elected mayor of Provo and enjoys high approval ratings.
So now the law has been changed so just the top vote getter among the delegates is sent to the governor.
That makes the stakes high and there are plenty of anecdotes about lobbyists recruiting a candidate for an opening then using their expertise and connections to get that candidate elected.
Years ago, there were famous battles between the credit unions and the banks to get their respective candidates elected.
Because there is only about a two-week window in those elections, the advantage goes to the candidate who has experienced and savvy campaigners (i.e. lobbyists) on his or her side.
SB97 simply would require lobbyists to report the hours they spent helping a candidate in one of those special elections. That was seen as a step toward transparency.
It seemed to have a lot of support, with the only opposition coming from — wouldn’t you know it — lobbyists.
It sailed through the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee and passed the Senate 28-0. It roared through the House Government Operations Committee without a negative vote.
And then it went to the full House.
There were strenuous objections from Republican Reps. Dan McKay, R-Riverton, Jon Cox, R-Ephraim (who both came in the Legislature via mid-term appointments) and Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan.
They argued basically that lobbyists are people too and they have feelings.
In the end, the House, so stellar in exposing the shenanigans of Swallow, defeated the bill that would have brought more transparency to itself, 37-35.
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