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How far will they get with reform?

Demos push variety of ethics measures

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Will Utah legislators outlaw taking gifts from lobbyists?

Will they just name more lawmakers who take the less expensive gifts?

Or will the 2005 Legislature do nothing about that issue and other so-called "government reform" measures?

Democratic leaders say the minority party will bring forward a package of reform bills this session.

They join a handful of the majority Republicans who are also saying it's time to revisit issues that have been a thorn in the side of some legislators for a decade.

"The public is saying we should ban gifts. And maybe we should," said newly installed House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy.

But how that is done, if done at all, will be a matter of some debate, Curtis believes.

House Democrats outlined their government reform ideas in their Tuesday night response to GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s State of the State address.

Some Democratic goals — such as getting independent commissions to redraw legislative district boundaries every 10 years or overseeing legislative ethics and campaigns — have little or no chance, Curtis said.

Tony Musci of Utah Common Cause, a government watchdog group, says: "Gifts should be banned. Keep it simple. There's no reason for them to take any gifts. In general, we like all these ideas (of ethical reform)."

Democrats aren't acting alone. Several Republicans also want changes in lobbyist reporting and conflict-of-interest rules.

A bill that would require representatives to verbally declare conflicts of interest before debating a bill passed the House Rules Committee Wednesday night. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dave Ure, R-Kamas, said: "All I'm asking is that we be open and honest with our colleagues."

This morning, Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, will see his SB102 go before a Senate committee. The bill would lower from $50 to $10 the naming threshold for a lawmaker who takes a lobbyist gift. In other words, accept a $10 gift from a registered lobbyist and your name shows up on his report.

Both Curtis and Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, think Bell's bill — with some fine tuning — might make it. But they're not big on some of the Democrats' ideas.

"We like Bell's bill," Musci said. "It's not a great improvement in the process, but it helps shed light" on who is taking what.

"There's no way now of knowing if any of these will pass," said House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, who has seen previous attempts at government reform die in House and Senate Rules Committees without even a public hearing.

"But this is the first time in years that a governor has made ethics reform an issue," said Becker, speaking of Huntsman's pledge to take various steps at ethical changes in the executive branch of government.

Wednesday, Huntsman said he was staying out of the fight over legislative ethics. "I'm only looking at the executive branch. The Legislature can do what it thinks appropriate."

Huntsman, for example, wants to ban top state executives from becoming paid lobbyists for a year after leaving state employment. Democrats want a two-year moratorium on legislators becoming lobbyists, although Curtis says a one-year ban might work with some modifications.

Since the early 1990s, every House speaker who retired immediately became a paid lobbyist. The exception was Marty Stephens, who left office the first of this year. Twenty-five former lawmakers are now lobbying, reports show.

Asked what he thinks about public servants taking gifts — whether from registered lobbyists or anyone else — Huntsman said he would operate as he did when he was twice an ambassador for the federal government.

"I will turn over any gifts I get" as governor "to the state."

There is one area where he must have a say, however.

House and Senate Democrats believe the State Elections Office should be taken out from under direct control of the partisan-elected lieutenant governor and made into a bipartisan office "to avoid election scandals."

Huntsman said he's talked to Democratic leaders about that idea, "and I'm keeping an open ear to that change."

The state just collects various reports and finalizes county vote counts.

Curtis believes a change isn't necessary. "Elected county clerks run the elections," he said. "And Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen is a Democrat, overseeing elections for 40 percent of Utahns. Has she not done a good job?"

But Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, says the State Elections Office, which with the coming of the new Huntsman administration has seen a large turnover in staff, should not be run by an elected official.

Republicans might want to require more frequent reporting in legislative and gubernatorial campaigns, Valentine said. "With being able to report on the Web, it's pretty simple to report once a month so citizens can really see who is funding our campaigns."

He also supports in concept not allowing legislators to spend their campaign funds on personal items. Although exactly what is a personal item needs to be carefully and fairly defined, Valentine added.

Going nowhere is the Democrats' proposal to have independently appointed commissions to oversee House and Senate ethics complaints and the once-a-decade redistricting of legislative seats, GOP leaders say.

"Redistricting is a legislative function and should stay there," Curtis said. Republicans have held majorities in the Utah House and Senate for 25 years and conducted redistricting in 1981, 1991 and 2001, drawing their own and the Democrats' districts.

"We have (internal) ethics committees, made up of the same number of Republicans and Democrats," said Curtis, who sees no need for a change there.

The biggest fight most likely will come over either banning lobbyist gifts to lawmakers or making public lawmakers' names who take gifts valued at less than $50.

Polls by the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV over the years show most Utahns want the gifts banned.

Providing more disclosure on who accepts lobbyists' gifts is fine by Valentine. "Disclosure is the light turned on for public officeholders. Banning lunches? Sometimes the lunch hour is the only time we can meet" with lobbyists and constituents to discuss issues, Valentine said.

If people want gifts banned altogether, then ban by name, says Curtis. "If we think legislators shouldn't be taking Jazz tickets, then ban athletic events. But that means you can't go to a University of Utah football game, either" as a guest of the U.

The U.'s year-end financial report shows that the school spent about $16,000 in 2004 entertaining legislators, U. trustees, Board of Regent members and other public officials.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com