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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan holds up his NRA card and Utah concealed carry permit during debate on 2HB 114 Second Amendment Preservation Act Friday March 8 in the Utah House of Representatives.
Utah Legislature: Vote up or down — conflict or not

Conflicts of interest » On Utah’s Capitol Hill, there is no abstaining; members must vote even if bills directly affect them.

First Published Feb 24 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 24 2014 07:15 am

Rep. Johnny Anderson stood and declared a conflict of interest, a rare act in the Utah Legislature. The House was debating whether to give grants to preschools to expand services for at-risk kids, and Anderson is a partner in a preschool that could benefit.

But he voted on the bill anyway.

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At a glance

Public hearing on rule allowing lawmakers to abstain

The House Rules Committee will consider HR2 in a meeting scheduled Monday beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the State Capitol, Room 415. The proposal is fifth on the agenda.

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He had no choice.

Utah law requires it. Utah and Oregon are the only two states where members cannot abstain, and are required to vote even if they have a major conflict of interest.

"I probably would have abstained if I could," says Anderson, R-Taylorsville. "I think it makes sense to let people abstain, and then get up and explain why. Then it’s on the record."

That situation annually leads to debates about how well the Legislature controls conflicts of interest. Lawmakers have full-time jobs elsewhere, so almost any bill directly affects someone in the group of attorneys, doctors, lawyers, bankers, real-estate brokers, electricians, insurance agents, ranchers and teachers, among many other professions.

Analysis by The Tribune shows that one of every five bills this year is sponsored by someone with a potential conflict of interest with it — or, depending on one’s view, special expertise ­— because of their regular jobs. Conflicts also have become part of major debates on such issues as whether to move the state prison or undo the Count My Vote initiative .

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, is again pushing legislation, HR2, to allow lawmakers to abstain or vote "present." But he and leaders do not expect it to go far, again. In part, that’s because leaders see conflicts as natural in a citizen legislature, and worry that creating more pressure to declare them and skip votes could get out of hand.

Ethics reformers disagree — and say a better system is needed.


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How it works » Currently, Utah legislators are required to fill out conflict-of-interest forms before the Legislature convenes, listing their employers, boards they serve on, property owned, their spouse’s employer and anything else they see as a potential conflict.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, takes a broad view. "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," he wrote on his form.

He also listed working in insurance and being a concealed-carry permit instructor, and has introduced legislation affecting those areas this year.

As long as a potential conflict is listed on the form (which can be found online if you know where to look), rules do not require members to declare it verbally in any debates or votes.

If a conflict comes up that is not addressed on disclosure forms, rules say members should declare it verbally.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, is among leaders who see that system as sufficiently transparent and maybe overly so. "Sometimes we declare a conflict when we really don’t need to declare it," he says.

Maryann Martindale disagrees.

"I would question whether most citizens even know the conflict-of-interest forms exist," says the executive director of the reformist Alliance for a Better Utah. "No one ever looks at them. It’s a pain to find them on the [legislative] website."

So she says one of two things is needed: Either allow abstaining with explanations, or enact "some kind of rule that requires them to stand and state a conflict of interest" to make them apparent.

"That’s just transparent government," Martindale says.

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