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GOP leaders vow ethics reform in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year GOP legislative leaders, just before the 45-day general session began, said lawmakers would go further in government ethics reform than ever before.

Two weeks before the 2010 Legislature convenes they're saying the same thing. Only this time — if House and Senate leaders can swing it — it may really happen.

And the reforms could include drastically cutting back on the "gifts" lawmakers take from lobbyists, campaign contribution limits and an independent ethics commission to screen citizen complaints against the 104 part-time legislators.

All would be groundbreaking changes, if they happen.

Currently, there are no limits to state and legislative campaigns. There's no independent ethics commission and only legislators, not residents, can bring an ethics complaint. The only "ban" on gifts to legislators from lobbyists are art and recreational/sports tickets over $50.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate met privately for four hours late last week, mostly talking about ethics — what kind of bills they'd like to see, what those topics should be.

GOP leaders want their Republican colleagues in separate caucuses Jan. 20 to review if not actual bills, at least specific changes to current ethics and campaign laws.

"I'd like the bills passed in the House the first week of the session, on the governor's desk by the second week," said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara.

Several of the GOP bills will be fashioned on recommendations made by the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy, a group put together by former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and continued by Gov. Gary Herbert.

Leaders also will try to rewrite the current legislators' code of ethics, a critical part of any true reform for the code is at the core of what lawmakers may or may not do.

There's little doubt GOP leaders are pushing reform again because of a detailed legislative ethics citizen initiative now being circulated for voter signatures.

If Utahns for Ethical Government can get 95,000 signatures by April 15, the initiative — much hated by most legislative Republicans — will go on the November ballot.

But Clark points out that well before UEG started, lawmakers themselves were working to tighten their own ethical standards. He had hoped more would have been done in the 2009 Legislature. And he believes great strides will be made in the 2010 session.

But such hopes have been seen and dashed before.

Utah remains one of the most unregulated states in the nation on state officeholder ethics, lobbyist control and gift regulation, the governor's commission reported. (The group's final recommendations can be viewed at strengtheningdemocracy.org.)

One specific idea GOP leaders are talking about is banning all gifts from lobbyists over $10. Disclosure of some gifts is required now, but not banning of gifts.

As now, there would be exceptions from the ban if certain groups of legislators were invited to an event. For example, if all 104 lawmakers were invited to a dinner, they could attend. But the lobbyist would still have to list how much, in total, the event cost.

Meals would fall under the $10 limit, so if a lobbyist took a lawmaker to a cheap lunch, the lawmaker could accept and it wouldn't be reported.

If things go as some GOP leaders want, in essence the personal, extravagant entertaining of an individual legislator, or a small group of legislators, would end.

No longer would you see a legislator sitting in the $450 seats next to the Utah Jazz bench. You likely won't see a lobbyist report that lists a lawmaker and spouse accepting a $250 dinner at an upscale restaurant — all of which happened in recent years.

Herbert has been kept apprised of GOP leaders' reform intents, Clark said.

The governor last year said he doesn't like campaign donation limits, but "full" disclosure. Later, he told his democracy commission that perhaps he'd accept limits, as long as expensive campaigns — like for governor which can run into $2 million or $3 million — have higher limits than the commission suggested.

Clark said he's prepared to draft and push bills that have the commission's limit of $10,000 over a two-year cycle, or $20,000, for a gubernatorial race.

Herbert "will have to show" legislators why his races should have higher limits than $20,000, Clark said. "Otherwise, we have what we have."

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com