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Session disappoints advocates of reform

One could argue that debate over government reform measures in a Utah Legislature sounds like a broken record: many ideas, some high hopes and little or nothing done.

The 2001 session was especially disappointing to reform advocates because most Democrats put forward a specific agenda and House GOP leaders were willing to push some of it if rank-and-file House Republicans went along.

But they didn't, at least not in sufficient numbers. And Republicans in the Senate simply said no — nothing will pass this year.

And it didn't.

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.

Even a basically non-controversial bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, that passed unanimously in the House died in the Senate Rules Committee without a hearing. The bill would have specifically outlawed the practice of some lobbyists of splitting their expensive gifts among themselves to avoid naming legislators who took the gifts. It died in the Senate Rules Committee with no hearing.

Sen. Ed Allen, D—Ogden, made a last-ditch effort get the bill to the floor Wednesday night, demanding a roll call vote. It was defeated 12-16 with all nine Democrats and three Republicans, including Senate President Al Mansell, voting for it.

Mansell, who called the bill a "disaster," said he only voted for it to give its proponents "some satisfaction."

The exception to the dozen or so government reform bills that failed was a bill that bans state agencies from spending taxpayer monies to hire contract lobbyists. That passed Wednesday afternoon.

At least "we didn't step backwards" on the government reform front in the session by repealing some existing law, said Cassie Dippo of Utah Common Cause. "That's good."

Dippo calls the death of Bigelow's bill 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 identity of a 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.

Public opinion polls have, over the years, shown strong support for reform such as banning gifts to lawmakers, stopping lawmakers from giving themselves monies from their campaign accounts and stopping legislators from immediately becoming paid lobbyists after retiring from office.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, blamed the problem with ethics bills on the Senate. And Mansell admitted there is not much appetite among his colleagues on either side of the aisle for reform issues.

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

"Beating up the Legislature is good press," said Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay. "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."