Maybe Rep. Kevin Garn has a point. He doesn't like the idea of laws being made by citizen referendum at the ballot box. After all, he said, "If people think special interests have too much influence … voters can change that … they vote on the legislators." He concludes that voters must be fairly happy with what lawmakers are doing, since so many are re-elected (Deseret News, Aug. 14).

If voters are happy, why do 75 percent of Utah voters call for legislative ethics reform each year — reforms such as those contained in the citizen initiative of Utahns for Ethical Government? Why does the Legislature continue to ignore the call year after year? And why is an initiative even necessary?

It's true that voters can vote incumbents out, but they must first get to the polls. Utah has a unique claim to fame in that regard. According to a study released by the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah's voter turnout rate in the 2006 general election was the lowest of the 50 states.

Who among us voted? Aspiring candidates don't stand a chance. New candidates are discouraged from even filing for office because of incumbents' vast campaign chests. In the 2008 election, 82 percent of senators and 91 percent of House members won re-election. Our Legislature has become a bastion of incumbents who insulate themselves from public access and criticism. They do what those in all aging institutions do — they silence dissent by punishing dissenters and labeling them as troublemakers. They limit information, or make decisions behind closed doors. Lobbyists have ready access, while the average citizen is ignored. Lawmakers have created the feeling of futility among voters. "Why bother?" we say. "My vote doesn't count, and they don't listen."

And that is the greatest danger our form of government faces today.

Lawmakers have shown no interest in self-examination and self-correction. No one audits them. It's up to citizens to restore integrity and trust in government. Our government didn't become sclerotic overnight. Rather, it has suffered long-term neglect by citizens who complain, protect their own interests and expect others to speak out. Our forefathers designed our form of government assuming there would always be alert citizens to safeguard the public interest. They knew that elected leaders were not angels. Our government needed to be renewed to keep pace with change. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, "Institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."

We forget that freedom is not a given. It must be fought for constantly. And institutions, if neglected, forget their purpose.

Such is the case with the Utah Legislature. Citizens should stop blaming lawmakers for the plight of our government and begin speaking out and offering solutions that restore trust and integrity in our government. Voters need to lobby for the public good.

Some have begun to do so. They have started a ballot initiative aimed at legislative ethics reform for the 2010 ballot. They must gather 95,000 signatures ( ). It's one way for citizens to get involved and make government work for the public good rather than special interests.

Responsible lawmakers should renew their commitment to serve the public and regain the public trust rather than wait to be pushed.

Garn has it right: If voters don't like how their legislators conduct the public's business, they can change that.


A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil-rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and serving as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: