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Ethics reforms are getting sidelined

Other issues rule session despite calls for change

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A $25 million tax cut. A record-setting $7.3 billion state budget. Death of a controversial public utilities bill. Hazardous waste fee hikes. Tightening up of DUI law. Talk and more talk of education funding and parental control. And barely a whisper on ethics reforms.

The 2001 Legislature sweeps into its last three days Monday with a number of budget items decided, a few heated arguments to come.

As usual, many — if not most — of the bills Utah's 104 part-time lawmakers introduced with great hope since the Jan. 15 start of the session will ultimately fail.

And for a few Republicans and Democrats, the dream that the 2001 session would, at last, deal with some government reform issues is falling short. It appears nothing will be done about legislative ethics and campaigns, lobbyist gift-giving to legislators and the spending of campaign funds on nonpolitical expenses.

"We didn't step backwards" on the government reform front, said Cassie Dippo of Utah Common Cause. "That's good."

But there was hope in some circles that it would have turned out a lot better.

A number of House Republicans and Democrats alike hoped that a few reform measures would be passed. House Republicans even held an open caucus the first week of the session to discuss reform issues. But instead of crystallizing action for reform, the caucus seemed split. And the proposals already were in trouble.

Only one major bill, one specifically banning the lobbyist practice of splitting gift costs to keep lawmakers' names from being reported, passed the House. And now it is locked away in the Senate Rules Committee, where it is expected to die quietly, out of sight and out of mind.

Dippo calls that a tragedy, noting that lobbyists spent $180,000 influencing Utah officials in 2000. But under current law, the lobbyists are not required to disclose the identities of the public official on whom they spent less than $50 a day. She said $160,000 of the $180,000 given carries no lawmakers' names with the reports.

And two different attempts in the House to lower that $50 a day reporting level to $25 failed in procedural votes.

"Businesses are making a big investment in our public officials, and if they weren't getting returns on that investment, they wouldn't make them," she said, adding the public has every right to know which lawmakers are being plied with free food and entertainment.

"I think they (senators) are holding out for free Olympic tickets," she said. "I know that is really cynical. But I can see it now. A lobbyist had better have free Olympic tickets next year or they won't get anywhere."

Blame the media

The problem, said House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, is not in the House but in the 29-member Senate, where lawmakers are more rooted in traditional ways of doing business. Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, admits there is not much appetite among his colleagues on either side of the aisle for reform issues.

Quite simply, most senators do not think there is a problem with lawmaker ethics, said Mansell and Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay. They don't see undue influence by lobbyists, improper spending from campaign accounts or any of the host of other problems reported by the media.

"Beating up the Legislature is good press," said Poulton. "No matter what we do, the media or the minority party or the other side (House) will find another issue to beat us up on."

And senators, for the most part, blame the media for creating a public perception there is a problem when none actually exists, he said.

House Democrats endorsed a number of reform issues, among them creating a new, bipartisan ethics/elections commission, banning lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, stopping retired legislators from becoming paid lobbyists for two years, creating a task force on campaign finance reform, and better streamlining of elections.

All failed.

Stephens says the fact Democrats championed some of the bills — a few of which Stephens himself supports and advocated — may have harmed the reform movement by making it a partisan issue.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, carried two reform bills himself — one that would ban lobbyist gifts, another restricting how current and retired legislators may spend their campaign war chests. Specifically, Becker didn't want retired lawmakers giving campaign funds to themselves for personal use, something that is allowed today.

"I disagree that there is not a problem," Becker said Friday in admitting the major reform bills are dead this session. Public opinion "polls show overwhelmingly that people want us to act on these issues. And the constituents I talk to say, while ethics and reform is not on the front burner, like education, they are concerned about it and want us to act."

Substantial war chests

A series of recent Deseret News reports highlighted questions about how lobbyists report their expenditures, how lawmakers spend their campaign accounts and how special interests are spending millions of dollars to influence lawmakers.

During last year's political campaign alone, individuals, corporations and special interest groups combined to contribute $2.9 million to candidates for the state House and Senate. All for a job that pays about $15,000 a year.

Those candidates, in turn, spent $2.2 million trying to get elected.

But that's only part of the story. According to a study by Gina Nixon of the Utah Progressive Network, candidates for the Legislature — mostly incumbent lawmakers — have retained in campaign war chests almost $1 million they can legally spend on anything they want, including giving it to themselves. Several lawmakers have done just that, paying themselves and family members thousands out of their campaign accounts.

Others left office with substantial campaign war chests and never accounted for what happened to that money.

State elections officials have a list of more than 80 candidates for the Legislature who have not filed campaign disclosure reports required by state law. Nineteen of the candidates are current or former lawmakers.

In all, candidates and former lawmakers have not accounted for more than $200,000 in campaign funds left over after the election.

As reported by the Deseret News, dozens of current and former lawmakers have used their campaign accounts for reasons that might be considered personal. For most, it is a few hundred dollars here or there — small change when compared to campaign races costing $20,000 to $50,000. But in some cases, the personal expenses go well over $1,000.

But it adds up. The Deseret News found that about $90,000 of campaign expenses over the past two years were for personal reasons.

Many lawmakers don't even realize they are using their campaign accounts for personal reasons when they bought food, lodging and travel for which they are already being reimbursed by state funds (see related story on A1). Some did not realize that using their campaign accounts to pay for their spouse's travel expenses is a personal use.

Some do, but they simply take the money out of their accounts and pay taxes on it, as required by federal tax law. One who does that is Speaker of the House Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, who paid taxes on the more than $3,000 from his account he used for his wife's travel.

Same time, next year

The use of campaign funds for personal reasons does not sit well with citizen activists, even if taxes are paid.

"We need something that prescribes exactly what is appropriate to do with these funds," Dippo said. "They are engaged in the public's business, and those monies should not be used for personal reasons."

And with $926,739 sitting unspent in campaign accounts, the potential for abuse, she said, is huge.

Several current lawmakers have huge campaign war chests. Sen. Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, has $40,500 left in his account after he won re-election last year. Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, had a tough re-election race but managed to have more than $29,000 left over when all was done.

A total of 19 current lawmakers have current campaign war chests of more than $10,000, eight of them with more than $20,000. At the top of the list is Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley, with $57,613. He will run for re-election in two years.

And Dippo is concerned about how majority Republicans more than ever are making policy decisions in closed caucuses. "They are doing the public's business behind closed doors. They are deciding what will and will not be debated in secret, and that is not appropriate," she said.

But those will be issues decided in another year.

E-mail: spang@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com