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Will ban on legislative gifts over $50 stand?

Bell says intent of his bill wasn't to prohibit accepting such items

Utah legislators will discuss next week whether a mistake in a gift-disclosure bill, which apparently bans them from taking tickets to various events over $50, should be adhered to, or whether the original intent of the new law should be honored.

Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights — soon to be Lt. Gov. Greg Bell after the Senate confirms him Sept. 1 — has told the Deseret News that it was not the intent of his gift-disclosure bill, passed last session, to ban any gifts at all.

Rather, Bell sought to more fully disclose which legislators were taking gifts of food or beverage over $25, other gifts over $10, and any sporting, cultural or recreational tickets provided to a lawmaker.

It was only after the bill passed that some legislators noticed that the definition of "gift" now includes any sporting, cultural or recreational ticket.

And in an old part of the law, not changed by Bell, it says that legislators can't accept any "gift" valued at more than $50.

"It was certainly not the intent of the bill to ban any gifts," said House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton. "But personally, if we end up banning (tickets) over $50, that's fine by me."

Garn and other GOP leaders have asked their own staff attorneys to draft an official opinion on the new law. It was those staff lawyers who drafted the bill in the first place.

Garn said he hopes the opinion can be ready for GOP House and Senate caucuses, held at noon each interim study day. Lawmakers meet this month on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

"I have no problems" with just keeping the $50 ban on any such tickets from lobbyists, Garn said.

Meanwhile, opposition — or at least questioning — of two citizen initiative measures has already started on Capitol Hill.

Dave Hansen, state GOP chairman, says a redistricting initiative is not needed and is badly timed.

The group Fair Boundaries has started signature-gathering on its initiative, which basically would set up a non-partisan commission to recommend how the Legislature would redraw U.S. House, legislative and state school board districts every 10 years following a new census.

Hansen said, "The constitution gives that responsibility to the Legislature. And I at least want to have the people who do that (lawmakers) accountable to the voters in re-election, not have (redistricting) done by some nameless appointees not accountable to anyone."

Republicans have been in the majority in the Legislature for 30 years. And Democrats routinely complain that the GOP-controlled redistricting (although some Democratic legislators do routinely vote for the ultimate redistricting bill) is unfair.

Todd Taylor, state Democratic Party executive director, said Utah Democrats already have endorsed the Fair Boundaries initiative. And he believes it is sorely needed.

Garn said that he has read the new legislative ethics initiative — just unveiled by the group Utahns for Ethical Government on Wednesday — and he generally agrees with some of its goals. However, he said he doesn't like the idea of setting Utah law by citizen referendum at the ballot box.

"This is a republic. We elect people to make these decisions," said Garn, who as a freshman legislator nearly 20 years ago got passed the state's first lobbyist gift disclosure law. "If people think special interests have too much influence" in the Legislature, "voters can change that." "They vote on the legislators" and seem fairly happy with what lawmakers are doing, since so many are re-elected.

In fact, in the 2008 election, 82 percent of senators seeking re-election won, and 91 percent of House members were re-elected.

Yet, in a poll conducted in 2007, the Deseret News and KSL-TV found that 69 percent of Utahns favored a nonpartisan commission recommending a redistricting plan to the Legislature. And over the years polls show most of the ethics reform measures, found in the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative, have been supported by large majorities, like 75 percent or 80 percent of the citizens.

Taylor said while he did ask Democratic legislators not to jump on board the UEG initiative without reading and thinking about it, he personally likes much of what he's read in the plan.

Long involved with getting Democrats elected to the Legislature, Taylor says he does have problems with limiting campaign contributions. The UEG plan would limit individual contributions to $2,500 and PAC contributions to $5,000. It would eliminate corporate contributions completely. Utah has unlimited campaign contributions now.

"But (the UEG) has found a rather elegant solution" to that concern, Taylor said. He guesses the Democratic Party will take a stand on the UEG petition at some point.

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com