It must be disillusioning for Utah legislators who understand that public trust is a hallmark of government service. We speak of the handful of state lawmakers who have sponsored proposals this session that range from seeking bans of gifts of $5 or more from lobbyists, lowering gift reporting thresholds, curbing the use of campaign contributions for personal use and enhancing the reporting of conflicts of interest. These proposals have come from members of both parties.
Although public opinion polls conducted on behalf of the Deseret Morning News and other Utah media organizations have repeatedly shown that a wide majority of Utahns want the state Legislature to enact meaningful ethics reforms, the champions of such legislation are often left wanting. Their attempts to shine light on lobbyist gifts, conflicts of interest and campaign contributions are squelched by legislators who say there's no need for such legislation because Utah lawmakers handle themselves appropriately.
If that's the case, what's the harm of reporting requirements that enable lawmakers to show the public how they interact with lobbyists?
For that matter, why not put an end to this matter all together? An all-out ban on lobbyist gifts wouldn't dissuade lobbyists from their primary functions — to educate and, yes, persuade lawmakers to their particular points of view. Those conversations needn't take place on a golf course, in a tony restaurant or during a Jazz game. Why can't lawmakers, who are paid per diem by the taxpayers, use that money to buy their own meals when meeting lobbyists over lunch or dinner?
Let's not kid anyone. A dinner, golf date or tickets to a cultural or sports event buys access to lawmakers that the general public never will have. Even the most dutiful lawmaker cannot return every constituent's telephone call, e-mail or letter sent during the busy legislative session. While most people understand there are only so many hours in the day, they don't understand why — in the absence of an all-out ban on lobbyist gifts — there isn't greater transparency. If John Doe can't reach his or her senator or representative to raise concerns about an issue, he deserves to know who is bending their ears. That reporting should be clear cut and crafted in such a manner that lobbyists can't skirt reporting requirements by giving gifts just under the established limits.
Today we applaud Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights; Majority Leader Jeff Anderson, R-Provo; Assistant Minority Whip Rep. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake; Rep. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake; Assistant Minority Whip Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake; and others who have fought the good fight on ethics reform this legislative session. This list also includes House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, who has for many years championed lobbying reform. Although these efforts face an uphill battle, these lawmakers should know that their efforts are widely appreciated.