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One Utah ethics bill advances, one flounders

Published March 5, 2013 6:32 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah legislators may soon bar themselves from accepting donations while on Capitol Hill — but have decided to continue voting on bills even if they have conflicts of interest.

The House Rules Committee on Monday unanimously endorsed HJR16, which would prohibit accepting donations on Capitol Hill, and sent it to the full House.

Its sponsor, House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, noted that rules already ban lawmakers from accepting donations anywhere when the Legislature is in session (and it is illegal for someone to make such a contribution). But he noted nothing bars members from accepting donations at the Capitol campus during interim meetings and said donations often have been made there as a matter of convenience to members gathering from around the state.

"We should not have that [accepting donations] happen at the same time we are talking specific policy," Hughes said. "Campaign contributions would be left to another day" with the rule change.

Meanwhile, the committee decided to defer action on HR1, which would allow members to abstain on votes when they may have a conflict of interest — and instead called for studying it during interim meetings later this year.

Its sponsor, Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said members currently have no choice but to vote on a bill even if they have a conflict, or "take a walk" away from the House chamber. He said 25 states now ban their House members from voting when they have a conflict of interest, and another 23 allow members to vote "present" whenever they choose.

Nielson said his rule change would allow officials "to stand down when appropriate."

But Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said, "this is a live hand grenade." He said if people make a mistake, and don't abstain on something that is a potential conflict, "you will be called on the carpet, and you may have hell to pay." He said it may lead to much less voting by members.

An unsuccessful attempt also was made in 2010 to allow abstaining when members had conflicts of interest. Nielson said that proposal died mostly because it tried to define what conflicts of interest are, while his current proposal would leave it to the judgment and conscience of members.