The Utah Legislature still needs further ethics reform. But it no longer needs an Initiative to spur it on. Because of recent improvement in ethics laws, the Utah Ethics Initiative is largely redundant of existing Utah law. Utahns should, therefore, oppose the potential Legislative Ethics Initiative for which signatures are now being gathered around the state.
Ethics Commission. Utah's legislature does not have an independent ethics commission--not yet anyway. That's about to be fixed. The proposed Initiative states that
Forty states have some form of an independent ethics commission; Utah does not.
But it will soon have such a commission, thanks, likely, to the prodding of the pending Ethics Initiative. The Utah legislature is currently crafting such an independent commission. This is only one of several indications that (most of) the reasons for the Ethics Initiative has now been obviated. According to the Salt Lake Tribune:
The measure, if approved by the Legislature, would establish an independent five-member ethics commission with subpoena powers. Composed of retired judges and former lawmakers, the commission would serve as a grand jury of sorts, gathering evidence, holding hearings and screening complaints filed against sitting state lawmakers...It is unclear at this point what form the independent commission will take, but it will almost assuredly be more practical than the verbiage contained in the proposed Ethics Initiative, not containing such mistakes as (1) requiring "respondents"--those against whom complaints are filed--to pay for their own defense and (2) not allowing respondents to be involved in the presentation of evidence of ethical misconduct.
Utah Ethically Challenged? The Ethics Initiative's intent statement begins with a condescending lie:
It has become evident over the years that the legislature has been unwilling to enact enforceable ethical standards of conduct or a workable process for enforcing its own rules.At one time in recent memory that statement may have been true, but it isn't any longer, and it wasn't by the time the Initiative took its final form. As will be shown below, much meaningful reform has been enacted by the Legislature.
The Utahns for Ethical Government web site says
These are not radical proposals. Most states already have them. They are common-sense guidelines for ethical behavior in government.What UEG doesn't say is that one of those "most states" is Utah. Many of the supposed problems the initiative tries to solve have already been solved. Ethics reform began before UEG even proposed the current initiative. Yet, speaking with outdated information, UEG tries to perpetuate the fallacy that the Utah legislature is one of the most ethically challenged in the country. Such tripe gives the impression that the proposed initiative is--whether or not such a thing is true--nothing more than an attack by the Democrat minority in the Legislature on the Republican majority.
Below are some of the laws that were passed in the 2009 legislative session, which further make the Ethics Initiative generally moot. Click here to see a summary of all of those laws.
Senate Bill 162. Use of Campaign Funds. UEG worries that legislators can use campaign funds for anything they want. A letter published on November 28th, 2009 states:
The best “ethics reform” we get from the Utah Republican-dominated Legislature are feckless, timid proposals that protect the powerful and keep legislators smothered with freebies and campaign cash that they can spread around at will.This wasn't even true when UEG began selling the Initiative. It was already against the law for a sitting legislator to use campaign funds for personal use:
A state office candidate or the candidate's personal campaign committee may not deposit or mingle any contributions received into a personal or business account.In early 2009, new law made it clear that the only thing a legislator can do with leftover campaign funds after leaving office is to transfer them to someone else's campaign fund.
SB 156. Gift/Meal Provisions for Public Officials. The Ethics Initiative would completely ban gifts to legislators. Is that practical? An outright ban on gifts to legislators would be easily and regularly violated by almost anyone in the Legislature. Imagine you were a legislator, and you were asked one of the following questions. "Sir, would you like one of our pens?" "Can I buy you a bottled water or a soda pop?"
Senate Bill 156, passed into law last March, requires all meals, event tickets, cash, and other gifts over 25 dollars to be publicly disclosed. Under no circumstance can a gift be more than $50. I personally think $50 is still too much, but it's much better than it was before, and it's a much more practical solution than an outright ban.
HJR 14. Ethics and Training Course. The Ethics Initiative would require
a training program for ethical responsibility for all legislators and for all departments and staff of the legislatureThe 2009 legislature has already gone that requirement one better. HJR 14 requires not only legislators and their staffs, but also lobbyists, to complete an Ethics Training Course once per year to ensure that they are thoroughly familiar with Utah ethics laws. The Utah Office of Legislative Research has been tasked with putting the training course together.
. . .
The proposed Ethics Initiative has served a noble purpose; it got the Republican-dominated legislature off its collective duff to improve ethics in Utah government. But the Initiative, besides serving a purpose, has some fairly large flaws that even supporters are now admitting. There is no use or reason to introduce an intiative whose problems are either largely fixed or that is flawed by admission of its proponents.
Once an initiative has been filed with a state election commission and the initiative supporters begin to garner signatures in order to get the initiative on the ballot, it is too late to make changes to the text of the initiative. Unfortunately, supporters are now agreeing that the initiative has problems, but have claimed that the problems are things that can be corrected by the legislature after the initiative becomes law.
Although they have a ways to go, the Utah legislature has markedly improved its own ethics requirements in the last year or two. It would be counterproductive at this point to install new laws over the top of ones that are already working. Much of the Utah Ethics Initiative has become moot. Much of the rest, such as the initiative's "intent" statement and the establishment of a panel to select commission members, is to condescendingly negative, too broad, and/or too unclear to be of any value.
That's why I oppose the Utah Ethics Initiative. This break has been mostly fixed. Let's focus on the things that still need fixing.