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(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns
Handling conflicts of interest a challenge in Legislature
Legislature » Only oneother state doesn’t allow abstention; 20% of bills could raise questions.
First Published Mar 10 2013 12:26 am • Last Updated May 31 2013 11:33 pm

When Utah legislators run into a conflict of interest on legislation, they vote on the bill anyway.

They have no choice.

At a glance

Utah Legislature and conflicts

The 104 members of the state Legislature are part-time state officials who make their primary living from other occupations and businesses. While legislators must file conflict-of-interest statements prior to the session, nothing requires conflicts to be declared during debate. Utah also has an odd rule that senators and representatives must vote on all bills on the floor, potential conflict or not.

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Utah law requires it.

But in the past week they began debating again, as they have for years, whether it would be wise to allow themselves to abstain, or vote "present," in those situations. After all, such abstention amid conflicts is either required or allowed in 48 of the other 49 states — but Utah is a holdout.

Utah legislators do run into plenty of potential conflicts of interest because it is a part-time body — meeting 45 days a year — so members have regular "day jobs" besides being lawmakers. Almost any bill directly affects someone in the group of attorneys, doctors, lawyers, bankers, electricians, architects, ranchers, teachers, developers and business people, among many other occupations.

In fact, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows that one of every five bills introduced this year is sponsored by someone who faces a potential conflict of interest on it — not to mention conflicts the bills may create for others voting on it. Such bills often deal with a sponsor’s profession, or organization boards that they sit on.

Leaders say that is the beauty and curse of a part-time citizen legislature: It brings together people with expertise in many areas to help improve legislation; but it also creates more potential conflicts — and creates a challenge to prevent self-dealing and maintain voter confidence.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, put it this way on his disclosure form, when it asked for items besides his insurance-industry job that could cause conflicts: "I am a member of the human race and a citizen of Utah, all of what the Legislature deals with will have a direct or indirect impact, either positively or negatively upon myself and my family."

Then he adds, "I am also a concealed-weapon-permit instructor," and he has often been involved in gun bills through the years.

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Conflicts? » To illustrate how many potential conflicts occur — and how some may be more direct than others —The Tribune compared all bills introduced this year with the written conflict of interest statements filed by their sponsors.

The analysis found at least 152 bills and resolutions — 20 percent of all those filed — whose sponsors have extra expertise because it directly affects them or their profession, or, depending on one’s view, it creates a potential conflict of interest.

It found 56 of Utah’s 104 lawmakers sponsored at least one such bill. A chart with all those bills and sponsors is online at sltrib.com.

Some examples of what was found include:

» Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, both own insurance agencies. Between them, they sponsored six bills dealing with the insurance profession — such as HB47, Insurance Law Amendments, by Dunnigan; and HB65, Insurance Beneficiary Changes, by Bird.

» Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is a pharmacist and sponsored SB194, Pharmacy Practice Act Amendments.

» Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association and sponsored bills that seek action favored by that group, such as SB34, affecting when bond elections can be scheduled, and SB33, Sales and Use Tax Revisions.

» Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, is vice president of Intermountain Healthcare and sponsored several health care bills, including HB135, Medical Malpractice Amendments, and HB57, Mental and Behavioral Health Amendments.

» Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, is president of Elkay Consulting, which consults on building codes. He sponsored HB277, Building Code Amendments. Similarly, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, is a homebuilder and sponsored HB202, Energy Conservation Code Amendments.

» Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, and sponsored HB283 to toughen enforcement of seat belt laws, and HB103 to ban teen drivers from using cellphones while driving.

» House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, is the human resources director of Weber County, and sponsored HB193, Utah State Employment Amendments.

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