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Huntsman signs promised ethics policy

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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed an executive order Wednesday setting an ethics policy for the executive branch of government that bans most gifts, prohibits nepotism in hiring and contracting, and establishes a two-year wait before former employees can lobby state agencies.

"This policy establishes clear boundaries of ethical guidelines that the public expects of government employees," Huntsman said, although it does not apply to the state's legislative or judicial branches.

The governor promised in his State of the State address last month that he would sign an executive order establishing the new policy. Huntsman has said he needs to take action because lawmakers have not passed executive branch ethics bills requested by his office in past sessions.

But the governor has said repeatedly he was not trying to nudge lawmakers toward establishing tougher ethical standards for themselves. His spokesman, Mike Mower, said Wednesday that "we recognize that the Legislature has its own ethical standards that it adheres to."

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said after a brief review of the executive order that the new policy wasn't so different from what lawmakers follow. In fact, Valentine said the $50 limit on legislative gifts is even clearer than the governor's, which exempts a number of items, including meals and "trinkets or mementoes of nominal value."

Executive branch employees also have the opportunity to purchase tickets or other items not exempted, something the governor himself already has done on several occasions when given a gift he wanted to keep.

"I like a 'bright line' because our people know if they stepped over it or not," the Senate president said. He said that at his request, legislation is being drafted to require additional financial disclosure in off-election years.

Mower said the policy establishes "common-sense guidelines. For example, a complimentary baseball cap would be acceptable, but a gift of significant value would not be," including an expensive meal at a lavish restaurant. "It's pretty clear," Mower said.

The requirement that state employees wait two years after leaving government before they can lobby their former agencies does not extend to the Legislature. Although preventing executive branch workers from becoming legislative lobbyists was discussed, Mower said the governor did not have the authority to do that.

Valentine said lawmakers don't have a "cooling off" period for themselves because unlike executive branch employees, the elected representatives are only part time and all have other professions. "If it really was a big deal, we'd have a lot more lobbyists and a lot more who were former legislators," he said.

The governor's new policy, which only affects current executive branch employees, also states that employees cannot take part in any hiring or contracting decisions involving family members or their businesses.

Meanwhile, Wednesday the House Rules Committee voted a gift-ban bill to the House floor for debate. The bill, sponsored by House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, would ban most gifts over $5, although it, too, has a number of exceptions.

However, House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, declined to "read in" the Rules Committee sifting report. So those two-dozen bills don't go on the House floor calendar for debate. Asked why he didn't read in the report, Curtis said there are already enough bills on the calendar to consider Friday — a day when the House is supposed to debate House-sponsored bills.

"I'm not so sure the bills" sent out by the House Rules Committee "are really priority bills — that should come before some others." Curtis said he would take a look at the next list of bills Rules sends out to decide if they are worthy of consideration by the whole 75-member body. And Becker's gift ban bill may not be on that next Rules report, anyway.

Public opinion surveys by the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV show time and again that most Utahns want to either ban lobbyist gifts to legislators or at least have more disclosure.

Current law says that legislators can accept any "intangible" gift, like a sport ticket or a meal. If a lobbyist spends more than $50 in one day on a legislator, that legislator's name must be listed in the lobbyist's financial disclosure report. A Morning News study of lobbyist gift-giving in 2006 published several weeks ago showed that more than 80 percent of gifts given to legislators were under $50, and so no legislators' names came with the gift. Lobbyists gave legislators more than $115,000 in gifts last year, on average that came out to more than $1,100 per legislator.

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