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Handling conflicts of interest a challenge in Legislature
Legislature » Only oneother state doesn’t allow abstention; 20% of bills could raise questions.

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» Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is vice president of the Utah Jazz retail division. He sponsored HB300 to give out-of-state online retailers incentives to collect Utah sales tax (which could eliminate price advantages they have over in-state retailers). He is also a scoutmaster, and sponsored HB145, which would allow donations to the Boy Scouts by checking a box on tax returns.

» Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, is a former board member of the Utah Transit Authority and introduced bills that would give UTA buses the right of way when they try to merge into traffic after stopping, and a resolution calling for questions on safety around train crossings in driver license tests.

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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» At least 25 bills affect the pay of lawmakers, their ethics rules or their campaigns. All, of course, were sponsored by legislators affected by them.

Disclosure » Current rules require legislators to file written forms at the beginning of every session listing what they see as potential conflicts of interest, including naming their employers, boards they serve on, property they own and their spouse’s employer.

If legislation arises that creates another conflict that a lawmaker either did not realize or forgot, rules require them to verbally disclose that before a vote.

Maryann Martindale, executive director of the progressive watchdog group Alliance for a Better Utah, says those rules may be inadequate.

"Nothing requires them after they file their written disclosure form to ever mention a conflict again. It’s largely forgotten about," she says."They should be mandated to mention conflicts verbally, because it could make a big difference in context during debate."

For example, Martindale praises Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, for saying during debate about moving the state prison and developing the land, that he owns land nearby, and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, for mentioning she sits on boards of several nonprofit groups in debate on bills affecting nonprofit organizations.

"It’s important in debate to know about those kinds of things. But disclosing it verbally is not required, and too often what is on the written forms is not known or forgotten," she said.

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Niederhauser, however, says he believes the current system is effective. "I am one of the cases in point," he says — noting he had listed his property near the prison on disclosure forms, and knew it could be an issue so he also mentioned it.

"I think it is very transparent what our conflicts are," he says. "So you can raise that in the press and … anyone in the political body can raise those questions and make sure there’s not any self-dealing going on."

Debate » In the past week, the issue arose again about whether lawmakers should be required to vote when they have conflicts of interest. Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, pushed HR4 which was to have allowed abstentions in the House — but it stalled in the House Rules Committee and was referred for interim study later this year.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, says if the House were to enact such a rule, he also would push a similar change in the Senate — but notes he has failed in that attempt several times. "It bogged down in the past over language trying to define exactly what a conflict of interest is," Bramble says.

Nielson thought he could avoid that problem this year because HR4 would leave it up to members themselves to decide when a conflict was big enough for them to abstain. As he told the House Rules Committee, "This simply allows the lawmaker to use his or her conscience."

He also argued that 25 states mandate that their House members not vote when they have conflicts, and 23 others allow abstentions — so Utah mandating members to vote "is an unusual rule." He said the only way to avoid voting now is "to take a walk" to try to miss a vote, but a call of the House could compel the member to be found and cast the vote anyway.

Nielson added, "The current rule takes the issue of conflict of interest off the table when we vote. It means we as representatives do not have to consider when we vote whether we have a conflict of interest. We are required to vote and the media don’t ask questions."

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, called Nielson’s proposed change "a live hand grenade," possibly bringing dire consequences if members fail to abstain and later are found to have a perceived conflict of interest.

"I think if you blow it, you’re going to get called in on the carpet and you may have hell to pay," Hutchings said. "Right now, if I’m not sure if I have a conflict or not. As long as I state it in writing, or as long as I stand up and state it, then I am covered."

Hutchings said HR4 could lead to many "people abstaining ‘just in case.’ And I think you’re going to have even fewer people voting … instead of a transparency effect."

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