Utahns by and large approve of how their 104 part-time legislators act. But in one area — legislator ethics and campaigning — Utahns favor a broad range of reforms, a new wide-ranging public opinion survey shows.

The Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, in an effort to measure Utahns' views about how state lawmakers manage their own ethical conduct, asked more than two dozen questions on the subject. Four hundred adults were involved in the survey earlier this month.

A majority of those polled favored all kinds of political and ethical reforms, the survey by Dan Jones & Associates found.

In fact, Utahns turn down only one so-called reform idea: public financing of legislative campaigns. Jones found that even though Utahns worry about big money in politics, 63 percent of citizens oppose public financing of political campaigns here.

On all other issues, however, majorities — in some cases supermajorities — of citizens want change in how ethical and campaign issues are handled.

With such public support, why do most so-called ethical reform bills die each session?

Tony Musci, chairman of Utah Common Cause, a government watch-dog group, says legislators take talk of ethics the wrong way.

"Historically, legislators have a hard time understanding the problems with these issues — conflict of interest, campaign finance, lobbyist influence. They don't distinguish those systemic problems from what they see as an attack on their character. And it isn't. We need to get past that.

"Utah is below average in having strong laws ensuring an open and democratic government. But we are not below average, we are above average, in having good strong people of character in office. It seems it will take a scandal" for Utah legislators to see that ethics laws should be stronger. Fixing the structure is not a reflection on them as individuals or as a group, Musci said.

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said there may be some public perception problems on the whole, "but when individuals come to know their own legislators, they are very comfortable with them."

As a group, Utah legislators are "honest, they serve with great integrity and great sacrifice, both from their families and professionally. With a part-time Legislature there are inherent conflicts, but my colleagues are good people. And when there is a problem, the media is vigilant and shines a spotlight on it," Curtis said.

The new poll shows that Utahns back changes that local Democratic Party and minority party legislators propose — even though there is almost no chance that the Republican majority in the Utah House and Senate would change laws as the minority Democrats and citizens wish.

For years, local Democrats have introduced "political reform" bills in the Utah Legislature, only to see them die, sometimes without even a public hearing.

Last week, as part of a nationwide push by the Democratic Party to make ethics reform a major issue with voters this year, Utah Democrats from both the state House and Senate held a press conference in the Capitol to call for more transparency in government.

The press conference was held in conjunction with the unveiling of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act by Democratic leaders in Congress.

"As always, the Democratic Party is at the forefront of ethical reform and government transparency," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland.

Democratic legislators have a slew of bills this year dealing with ethics reform.

"Ethics is in such public view," said Rep. Pat Jones, D-Cottonwood Heights, "that now is the time to stop gifts" from lobbyists to lawmakers.

However, Thursday the GOP-controlled House killed an attempt by Jones to ban most gifts valued at more than $5. (Rep. Jones is the wife of Dan Jones and a principal in Dan Jones & Associates. The media outlets write all poll questions; the polling firm conducts and tabulates the surveys.)

Instead, the House passed House Majority Leader Jeff Alexander's bill that would require more disclosure of some gifts valued at $5 or more. Musci praised Alexander's bill, saying disclosure is good, if only one step down the needed road of reform.

Other ethics reforms sponsored by Democrats include a bill defining what can be done with personal campaign contributions; a bill requiring a one-year time period to elapse before someone who has left the Legislature can become a lobbyist; and a bill that would require a two-thirds majority to pass a redistricting bill in the House.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, says that while the Democrats' comments make a "beautiful political statement," they didn't tell the whole story.

As chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, Knudson said he has never witnessed a violation by a member of the Legislature.

"I respect the fact (the Democrats) want to address several areas," Knudson said. But "it's too early to tell" what the outcome will be for a number of ethics-related bills. Knudson pointed out that there are reforms being proposed by both Democrats and Republicans.

But Claire Geddes, longtime citizen activist, said more than a decade of lobbying for a variety of ethical reforms has taught her that the Legislature is resistant to change.

"Money does buy access, and that buys influence," Geddes said.

"When we've asked for gift bans or ethics laws, that's when I've taken the worst heat — you go in with shield and armor if you ask them to give up gifts. They don't get it — they think gifts are part of serving."

Some of the measures supported by Utahns in the poll have either been voted down before by majority Republicans or would never be supported because it would take power away from the majority party and give it to an independent commission.

GOP leaders have flatly said they are not going to turn over internal ethics investigations of legislators to an independent commission (81 percent of Utahns favor the commission); won't give up the power of the House and Senate to redraw legislative districts after each 10-year census (66 percent favor a commission to do that;) or turn the State Elections Office, now under the partisan-elected lieutenant governor, over to an independent commission (64 percent of Utahns favor that.)


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com