Commentary: Seeking ethics, transparency, and accountability in the Utah Legislature

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The Utah Legislature currently has an ethical code of conduct that is so vague and general as to be unenforceable, as acknowledged by the Legislature’s own House Ethics Committee. For several years, the media has reported the inadequacy of the Legislature’s ethical code and the support of citizens for an Independent Ethics Commission—to no avail.

Utahns for Ethical Government, a nonpartisan citizen group, drafted an ethics initiative with hopes of getting the issue before Utah’s registered voters. The initiative calls for an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints of legislative misconduct and recommend sanctions. The legislature would retain final authority on discipline of its members, as the Utah Constitution requires.

Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) was formed by former Republican state legislators, Democratic community activists, and independent good-government folks. The people behind UEG were alarmed by what they perceived as a decline in the ethical standards, transparency, and accountability of the Utah Legislature.

In addition to the independent ethics commission, the proposed initiative prohibits a legislator from simultaneously serving as a paid lobbyist, from accepting gifts from lobbyists, and from serving as a lobbyist for two years after leaving office. It sets limits on personal and PAC campaign contributions and prohibits campaign contributions from corporations and unions. (Currently, Utah is one of only 4 states without any campaign contribution limits.) Financial disclosure requirements are strengthened, and legislators are prohibited from any personal use of their campaign contributions.

Most current Utah legislators reacted negatively to any attempt to “impose” an ethical code and ethics commission on the Legislature. Legislative leaders have stated publicly that the Legislature alone should be able to determine their ethical standards and that a public initiative is a move toward direct democracy and away from the representative form of government. They ignore the fact that the Utah Constitution gives citizens the right to both the initiative process and the referendum process. Both have been used sparingly in Utah, and the Legislature has established extremely strict requirements for accessing the ballot. UEG was required to obtain the signatures of 10% of the total number who voted in the last gubernatorial election as well as in 26 of Utah’s 29 gerrymandered Senate districts.

Utah has been virtually a one-party state for the past several decades. The result has been a sense of entitlement on the part of the dominant party and an arrogance that has upset many informed citizens of both political parties. Utah voter turnout has been steadily declining over the same time period, and UEG thinks that many former voters of all stripes see no need to vote because their vote is either unnecessary or doesn’t count.

The State Integrity Investigation examined a variety of state laws and their enforcement, and it recently gave Utah an F on ethics enforcement, legislative accountability, and political financing, reinforcing the views of UEG.

UEG is currently in state court because of a difference between the Attorney General’s office and UEG over interpretation of Utah’s initiative statute timelines and electronic signature issues. UEG is optimistic that its initiative will be on the November 2012 ballot. When that happens, a great deal of time, energy, and financial support will be needed from all those who believe that Utah citizens have a right and responsibility to tell their elected representatives what their constituents expect for ethical standards.

To learn more about ethics, transparency and accountability in Utah, visit the Utahns for Ethical Government website.

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