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Battles still raging over ethics

Reforms are coming slowly to Capitol Hill

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Ten years ago, lobbyists sat on benches and in overstuffed chairs at the back of the Utah Legislature's House chamber, joking with representatives as the lawmakers passed bills the lobbyists desired.

No one knew how many legislators took sporting-event tickets, free ski weekends, meals and rounds of golf from lobbyists, since there was no reporting of the giving and taking.

Ten years ago, voters had little idea when they cast their ballots who was giving to legislative political campaigns because candidates weren't required to file financial-disclosure statements until after the election.

Now, a decade later, the battle and debate over so-called government reform issues still goes on in Capitol committee rooms and hallways. And while much has changed — new laws passed aimed at more disclosure, lobbyists rarely on the House and Senate floors and a more arms-length approach to many lobbyists and special-interest groups — much remains the same.

After several scandals and heated debates involving campaign funds, lobbyist cronyism and dealmaking, some lawmakers moved to shine brighter lights on much of their political workings.

More than 100 bills and rule changes dealing with those issues have been filed since 1991 when the Legislature adopted a lobbyist-disclosure act. That landmark bill is seen as the start of the legislative government reform movement, sparked in part by closer scrutiny of the Legislature by citizen groups and the media.

Issues like independent election commissions, legislative term limits, campaign financing and conflicts of interest have been debated time and again.

But only 22 of the 108 pieces of legislation have passed during that decade. A special reform task force put together in 1994 nearly fell apart because of internal bickering — the House chairman threatened to resign, asserting that members weren't working toward reform solutions.

And today, various comparisons show that Utah remains one of the most unregulated states in the nation when it comes to campaign money raising and spending, lobbyist disclosure and conflict-of-interest reporting.

State of ethics

"Basically, Utah's ethics laws are dismal compared to what has happened around the country in the last 10 years," says Cassie Dippo of Utah Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

In the early 1990s "we made some strides, but since that time (there has been) very little movement," she said. And while the Legislature did pass a term limit law in 1994, several current leaders predict it will be repealed before it forces anyone from office in 2006.

As the Legislature — which convenes Monday — enters a new decade of reform debate, the rhetoric is more muted. And, perhaps, more partisan.

Starting with the 1991 Legislature, House Democrats introduced a series of "government-reform" bills as a package. All failed last year.

"We're going to have basically the same package again this (2002) session," says House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake. Those include a ban on gifts to legislators, an independent elections commission, prohibiting personal use of campaign funds by legislators and revolving-door legislation that would prohibit retiring lawmakers from immediately becoming paid lobbyists.

Becker's not too optimistic about the legislation's prospects.

"Legislators, especially the Senate, weren't inclined to support them, even though (the media's) polling and our surveys of our constituents clearly show overwhelming support," he said. "Let's face it, we didn't get anywhere last year."

An exception to that may be the revolving-door issue — banning legislators from becoming paid lobbyists for one or two years after leaving the Legislature. Both Senate President Al Mansell and House Speaker Marty Stephens say they support that idea.

Throughout the 1990s, Deseret News/KSL-TV pollster Dan Jones & Associates has found consistently high support for a variety of reform measures.

In a poll taken before the 2001 Legislature, between 88 percent and 77 percent of Utahns supported such proposals as banning all gifts to lawmakers, stopping retiring legislators from becoming paid lobbyists immediately after leaving office, prohibiting legislators from using their campaign funds for personal use and limiting campaign contributions.

Now Becker raises the specter of Democrats using government-reform issues as campaign fodder in the 2002 elections. But he also wonders if any of the legislative races will turn on those issues alone.

"No one should look at this as a partisan issue. We should all want better government," he said. But, "If the public is willing to use that as an issue between Democrats and Republicans, as it has been in some cases in the Legislature itself, and if (Democrats) are the beneficiaries, that would be wonderful."

Who fights reform bills?

The internal politics of reform is murky, at best.

More than a few legislators have taken up the reform cause only to drop it quietly as opposition from colleagues grew.

In running for governor in 1992, then-candidate Mike Leavitt said he would come up with a reform package he would push in the 1993 Legislature. But after winning, Leavitt met the reform opponents and ultimately stepped quietly away from the issue. He says legislative ethics should be left up to the legislative branch of government.

In recent years, some House GOP leaders have taken on their own personal code of conduct. They shouldn't accept any gifts from lobbyists during the 45-day session, except those invitations that come to the whole body, like the University of Utah's "chili bash" and gymnastic tickets or a Utah Symphony concert.

As leaders, they've also supported various bills, but the legislation never passed.

House members in recent years point to the Senate as the killer of reform bills. But senators tell a different story — that of House members sending over bills they know won't get passed only to try to look good to the media and public.

"That's baloney," said Stephens, R-Farr West. "Every time we take these matters up, it strains relations (with leading senators). There is all kinds of behind-the-scenes fights. We get in yelling matches" in an effort to force the Senate to take votes on the bills.

Mansell, R-Sandy, said none of the House reform bills have been worth addressing in recent sessions. "It's the press demanding additional changes (to existing laws). Regardless of what we do, we would be criticized for not doing something more."

Mansell was irritated that the House would blame the Senate for not passing reform bills. "It would be interesting to see what would happen if we sent the bills the other direction," Mansell said.

They would likely pass, countered Stephens.

The House supports every reform bill sent over, "and senators can't fall on that excuse for their inaction," Stephens said. When former Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, retired from the Senate, House reform leaders hoped for a new attitude in the upper body.

Beattie, who is now the state's Olympic coordinator, is blunt: The reform issue is being pushed by a few special interest groups, a few legislators and the media.

"Number one, we haven't had a problem. You can't show me a problem or show me a violation. I think we are ahead of other states," Beattie says.

"But even states with strict ethics laws, it has not stopped people from choosing to do things illegally or inappropriate," said Beattie. "There are ways around (the laws). The difference in Utah is getting trustworthy people elected, electing honorable people."

Appearance vs. reality

While few legislators could or would cite a specific problem, proponents of change like Becker say the appearance of influence peddling and special privilege is often as bad as the actual occurrence.

But history points to some concerns.

In the early 1990s, a well-connected lobbyist gave out the Senate president's private telephone number. The president or his secretary would then take messages for the lobbyist.

While there was conflict-of-interest reporting 10 years ago, a former House speaker had to amend his conflict disclosure form to make it more specific after the media reported that his company had been hired to manage the apartments of a leading lobbyist.

And lawmakers took action in the late 1990s by making it more difficult for lobbyists to be on the House floor during debates after a GOP House leader couldn't field questions about a complex utility bill without lobbyists whispering the answers to her.

Money talks

Much of the reform debate really comes down to money: who gives it, who takes it and in what form it is taken.

Few argue that donations to legislators' campaigns buy access, while not actually buying votes.

"It doesn't make a difference when someone donates money to my campaign. There were days when I would receive over 300 calls, and there was no way to return them all," former Senate President Lane Beattie said. "If I would go through (the messages) and see someone who assisted me in my campaign, I would say there is a person I know, so I will call them back."

Lawmakers contend that restrictions on how much an individual, PAC, union or business can give a legislator not only limits a contributor's freedom of political speech but also restricts a candidate's ability to raise campaign funds in contests whose costs have doubled in 10 or 15 years.

"The average legislator is not paying his campaign bills. They are not putting a lot of their own money into races," said Mansell, whose first race cost $12,000; his second one was $40,000. "Is it too much? Yes. Some races may cost $60,000 to $80,000 this year. There is great pressure to raise money, something I hate doing."

Stephens says campaign finance is the toughest of the reform issues as proposals favor one political party while hurting the other.

"I've not seen a campaign finance plan that is fair to both parties that makes sense," he said. "Until then, the system we have is as good as anything." Stephens adds he personally supports a bill that would prohibit lawmakers from spending their campaign money on themselves — a bill Becker ran a year ago that died.

Reformers not liked

Jordan Tanner knows what it's like not to be liked.

The retired Utah County House member was not liked as he carried a number of reform bills in the 1990s. Most of them failed, and some among his own party's conservatives threatened to bring an ethics complaint against him over whether he lived in his district or not after he'd already announced he was retiring from office.

Tanner, retired two years now, remains unbowed.

"Utah is very much behind the curve in ethics reform. There seems to be a mind-set, particularly with some in the Senate, a total lack of understanding on what the voters and their own constituents feel is necessary to bring about the reforms," says Tanner. "The Legislature has not taken reform seriously."

Stephens said that some legislators shy away from reform bills because there is little success "and the issues wear you down."

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, was a freshman in 1991 when he carried the lobbyist disclosure bill. He recalls, "I walked into a buzz saw."

The law was ultimately passed but only after being watered down by then-legislative leaders who demanded a number of compromises to get it through, Garn said.

"It started out as a broad approach. I had a revolving door. I had lower reporting limits. I had 100 percent disclosure of all gifts given to individual legislators. But I had to take them out" to get the bill passed, he said.

"There is no question you anger certain people when you carry that kind of legislation," says Garn. "Many legislators feel it is an affront to their integrity if you introduce and try to pass legislation on lobbyist disclosure, and some harbor resentment because of that."

Some lawmakers accept a free meal or Jazz game ticket because they feel they deserve it. "Frankly, some people enjoy the perks of office. Yes, they make sacrifices to serve, and some believe these things are due them. That attitude is offensive to some of us, but they feel that way," said Stephens.

Change in the offing?

Both Garn and Stephens predict little progress on the ethics front in the near future. "It's not on our front burner," says Garn.

However, two GOP senators have told the Deseret News that there are negotiations behind the scenes to see what kind of "consensus" reform could be accomplished this year.

They said they're looking at closing the bundling lobbyist loophole (where several lobbyists join in buying an expensive Jazz ticket or meal and thereby avoid naming the accepting legislator) or revolving-door legislation that would stop a lawmaker from becoming a paid lobbyist for one or two years.

"With a budget crunch this year, (government-reform) issues won't get much consideration" in the 2002 Legislature, says Dippo, who has lobbied lawmakers for a decade on reform. "It would be wonderful if the Senate would take up a few of these things — like bundling and revolving door — and pass them to the House. You have to remain optimistic in this business."

Garn sees it differently. "I think it will take some kind of abuse, a clear incident" of wrongdoing by a legislator, before the Legislature as a whole will act further.

Editor's note: Before the 1991 Legislature, political editor Bob Bernick Jr. wrote a five-part series titled "Paying for power" that detailed Utah's legislative/lobbyist ethics regulations, campaign finance and conflict-of-interest law. Before the 2002 Legislature opens Monday, Bernick and special writer Jerry D. Spangler re-examined Utah's campaign and lobbyist laws to learn what progress has been made and what areas legislators have yet to address.

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