A state senator says Utah should remove itself from a shrinking list of states that do little to control lobbyists or police potential conflicts of interest among lawmakers.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said Wednesday new laws are needed to erase the public perception of corruption in state government."Conflict of interest and lobbyist disclosure are very much on people's minds," Hillyard told the Interim Judiciary Committee. "The general public feels most legislators are put up here by special interest groups and paid by special interest groups."
Hillyard introduced a bill during the 1989 general session that would have required members of the Legislature to disclose potential conflicts of interest and report sources of their income. It also would have required them to report gifts they receive from lobbyists worth $50 or more and prohibited gifts worth more than $250.
The bill did not pass the Senate, but the interim committee was assigned to study the issue. The committee took no action on Wednesday, but will resume the discussion at its June meeting.
Hillyard plans to reintroduce the bill, probably with some modifications, during the 1990 general session.
Presently, laws governing conflict of interest and lobbyist activities are scattered over several sections of the Utah Code and the Legislature's own ethics guidelines.
Hillyard's bill would impose stricter controls and place them within a single statute. For instance, lawmakers would be prohibited for the first time from taking money or other compensation for his vote.
Also, the bill for the first time would give the state regulatory control over lobbyists. Currently, the law requires that lobbyists register, and it forbids contingency contracts in which the lobbyist is paid only if their client's bill passes. Utah is one of only five states that does not require disclosure of gifts received from lobbyists.
Rep. Beverly White, D-Tooele, said the law was not needed because lawmakers never received valuable gifts.
"What do you consider a substantial gift? I know we get pens . . . we get jars of honey," she said. "In 20 years I don't know of a legislator who has received a substantial gift."
Ross Anderson, an attorney for Common Cause, said one example was a free skiing weekend that the Utah Ski Association offered to members of the Senate as it considered a sales tax exemption for the state's resorts during the 1989 general session.
The trip was described as informational so that senators could see first hand the need for new lifts and other improvements that savings from the exemption were to finance.
"That would be one example," Anderson said.
Rep. Ted Lewis, D-Salt Lake City, said there was no reason for legislators to receive gifts of any type. However, while not opposing the bill, he said he questioned whether the public really was worried about lobbying and conflicts of interest.
"I worry that we're giving the appearance that there is a big problem," he said. "I just don't want all of us to look guilty because we've passed legislation."
Hillyard said the public already considers lawmakers guilty. He pointed out that during a recent session, it was rumored that he had accepted a $15,000 contingency fee for sponsoring a telephone deregulation bill. He said the rumor was false but so widespread that he heard of it several times.