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Latest Utah initiative: ethics in government

Many in anti-voucher campaign join effort to put reform on '10 ballot

Remember the anti-voucher political juggernaut that crushed the Legislature's private school tuition tax credit law in 2007?

It's back.

A like-minded group of pro-public education advocates, including the Utah Education Association, the main teachers union, are forming ranks again to push a legislative ethics reform initiative.

The goal of Utahns for Ethical Government is to get a broad-reaching ethics initiative before voters in 2010.

Supporters must gather 95,000 signatures of registered voters by April 15 — a difficult task — to place the measure on the ballot.

But the 2007 anti-voucher group gathered the required signatures in just 45 days.

Not only are many of the old voucher group coming back, but UEG may well join forces with another initiative effort this year, the Fair Boundaries coalition.

Fair Boundaries wants an initiative law before voters setting up an independent commission to recommend to the Legislature new legislative and congressional boundaries following the 2010 Census.

If signature gatherers carried both petitions, it would halve the work for each group.

Former GOP Rep. Kim Burningham is chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government. Burningham, a State Board of Education member, was a major backer of the Utahns for Public Schools, the umbrella group that successfully repealed public school vouchers two years ago.

Lisa Johnson, who in 2008 ran as a Democrat against Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, ran Utahns for Public Schools in 2007.

Johnson said she will be a volunteer for UEG but won't run this new campaign, as she did two years ago.

"Certainly, many of us are the same," said Burningham on Tuesday. "I know many educators" who worked on the anti-vouchers campaign and will likely work on the ethics campaign. "But it is a mix" this time around, he added. For example, the Utah chapter of the AARP "is very involved in the new (ethics) initiative, but to my knowledge didn't do anything on vouchers."

Those who supported the anti-voucher effort, both with money and volunteering, will be contacted for help with ethics this year, Burningham said.

Vik Arnold, political director of the UEA, said his group will not determine an official stance on either of the citizens' initiatives until its board meets in early September. But the idea proposed by the UEG — raising the bar of legislative accountability — jibes well with the association's philosophy, he said.

"The UEA as an organization has long had a plank in its legislative platform that has supported ethics reform in general," Arnold said. "That said, many individuals, members and employees of UEA are supportive of both initiatives."

Burningham said he doesn't know if there will be any active opposition. "Everyone we talk to, they support better ethics in government."

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, wants better government ethics, too. While he and other GOP legislative leaders are still studying the ethics initiative language, he said early briefings by legislative attorneys tell him "this goes way too far, has many unintended consequences" that could damage the representative process of the Legislature.

Garn said he and other GOP leaders see a trend, and it worries them. With the 2007 anti-voucher campaign, and now with these two new initiatives, "where will it end? We're very concerned we could end up like California — government by initiative."

Making law is a time-consuming, difficult job, said Garn, who has spent 15 years in the House.

Hours of debate, amendments and thought go into a bill before it passes the House and Senate and is signed into law by the governor. All that is bypassed in the citizen initiative process, he added, and could lead to drastic results, harming government's effectiveness and costing untold amounts in tax dollars.

After the 2007 vote that repealed vouchers, pro-voucher GOP legislators were pounded in the 2008 election by Democrats and educators for their voucher votes. "We know this is the same (anti-voucher) group" running the ethics initiative this year, said Garn. "They are plugging in the same (anti-voucher) process."

He added that it now "looks like a pretty easy sell" to get petitions signed and Utahns to vote in favor of the ethics initiative.

Arnold said the manner in which pro-voucher legislators conducted business in the voucher battle two years ago is, of itself, cause enough for reworking Capitol Hill ethics.

"Back in 2007, how the voucher vote came about, the arm twisting to get that 38-37 vote (that passed the bill in the Utah House), how pressure was brought to bear … trying to keep the process from moving forward by challenging it in court … the time and money spent by legislators who supported the voucher bill to keep the public from having a say … it's easy to see why many of us feel that there is a connection between what happened … and what's being asked for now in campaign finance reform and disclosure."

A big question remains: Who will put up much of the cash to push the ethics initiative?

In the 2007 voucher fight, the National Education Association, the parent group of the UEA, funneled around $2 million through the UEA to the anti-voucher initiative, Utahns for Public Schools. While the group received hundreds of individual donations, by far the NEA money powered the voucher law's repeal. Utahns ultimately voted 62-38 percent to repeal the voucher law.

"I have no idea" who would give that kind of money this time around, said Burningham. He sees no group like the NEA being a major donor on the ethics initiative.

NEA elections director Charles Hasse told the Deseret News that his group only gets involved in citizen initiatives at the invitation of state chapters, in this case the UEA. Since the UEA hasn't asked for help with the ethics initiative, the NEA directors haven't discussed whether to send cash, said Hasse.

Burningham guesses individual donors will give $5 to $100 to the new political issues committee. UEG hopes to raise about $25,000 over the next several weeks to print the petitions and will use volunteers to gather signatures.

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com, araymond@desnews.com