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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.

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Conflicts » To illustrate how many potential conflicts occur, The Tribune compared all bills introduced this year with written conflict-of-interest statements filed by sponsors.

It identified at least 114 bills — about one of every five filed so far — with likely conflicts of interest, or special expertise, by sponsors. Some examples:

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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» Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, owns the Cache Title Co. He has introduced five bills dealing with title insurance or liens or operations of county recorders.

» Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is a pharmacist. He introduced SB55, the Pharmaceutical Dispensing Amendments, and other legislation to amend the list of controlled substances.

» Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, both own insurance agencies. Between them, they have sponsored five bills dealing with insurance.

» Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, is president of ELKAY Consulting, which consults on building code issues. He sponsored HB107, Fire Code Amendments.

» Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, sponsored a bill seeking to close a loophole in drunken driving laws, one to promote wearing seat belts and another to amend vehicle-impound laws.

» Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. He sponsored SB19 to change the qualifications of members of the State Tax Commission, and SB65, Sales and Use Tax Exemption Modifications.

» Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntville, owns a real estate brokerage. He introduced HB332, Real Estate Amendments, along with other legislation related to housing and land use.

» At least 50 bills affect elections, campaigns, or legislative and ethics rules. All, of course, are sponsored by lawmakers affected by them.

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One much-debated example of this is Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is pushing SB54 that would nullify the Count My Vote ballot initiative to require direct primaries to select party nominees. All current legislators were chosen through the present system using caucuses to select delegates, who may choose nominees at conventions.

In another high-profile example, House Republicans have endorsed moving the state prison, which would open up the opportunity for lucrative development at the present Draper prison site. At least 21 House members have professional ties to real estate or development, including bill sponsor Brad Wilson, a developer. (As a member of the board that studied the feasibility of relocation, Wilson is barred from profiting from the project).

Debate » Nielson says his proposal "gives you the choice to abstain when you feel uncomfortable."

He notes that not only do 48 states allow abstaining, "Half of those that allow it actually require you to abstain when you have a conflict."

Still, House Majority Leader Dee worries things could get out of hand "if we all start declaring conflicts of interest and not voting for everything that may affect a normal citizen," since virtually all such votes also affect some lawmakers.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, adds that leaders worry members may use the ability to abstain to dodge tough votes. "It’s been a concern forever."

Nielson says some members already duck tough votes anyway by walking out of the chamber. "The problem with walking is it is not transparent. No one knows if you are legitimately absent, or if you have left the chamber in order not to vote."

Dee said some members worry that allowing abstaining could lead to political attacks if they fail to do so and have stated minor conflicts.

Nielson said those criticisms already occur. "[The system is] broken because whenever I talk to my constituents about this, they are blown away by the notion that we don’t have a choice," he said.

Martindale agrees, and says the change Nielson seeks would make it easier for the public to assess if lawmakers with professional expertise are involved in an issue "for personal profit or it actually is because they have a unique insight that can help the discussion."

A hearing before the House Rules Committee is scheduled Monday for Nielson’s legislation. It received one last year before the same committee, but members voted 11-0 then to hold the bill and refer it for possible interim study during the year — which did not occur.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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