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Utah Legislature: Major ethics reform bill passes House committee

SALT LAKE CITY — In just over an hour Monday a Utah House committee made perhaps the greatest strides in government ethics reform in the state's history.

At the same time, a proposed gift ban bill includes a large exemption that could cut in half the amount of dollars spent on legislators that lobbyists would be required to declare.

The bipartisan House Ethics Committee passed Monday a package of five bills, including a constitutional amendment that would create an independent ethics commission. Some leaders called it "landmark legislation," but it also led to some new questions.

Specifically, the proposed bills could create a situation where Utahns would vote in November on two forms of legislative ethics reform — a constitutional amendment backed by the Legislature and an initiative placed on the ballot based on a petition signed by tens of thousands of Utah residents.

If voters adopted both the constitutional amendment and a citizens' ethics initiative, it would take court action to sort out the ensuing confusion, said the Legislature's general counsel, John Fellows.

The possibility exists that the provisions of the tough initiative backed by Utahns for Ethical Government would never become law even if approved at the ballot box because the constitutional amendment and an accompanying legislative rules change take legal precedence, though years of litigation might be necessary.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, explained to the Deseret News that a proposed gift ban bill includes an exclusion that would end reporting of some events by lobbyists that make up a large portion of the cash currently reported.

Specifically, Garn said, when groups of legislators are invited to an event, all costs associated with that event would not be reported at all.

Currently, even though 80 percent of gifts/entertainment provided to legislators by lobbyists does not come with the accepting lawmaker's name attached, the overall expenses are reported.

That would no longer be the case in a number of instances under HB267, Garn explained.

Even though HB267 would "change the way we do business up here," as Garn put it, the annual spending on legislators now compiled by the Lieutenant Governor's Office, and published by the media, could be cut in half from its current dollar amount — since many of the big-ticket items legislators attend every year are events where groups of legislators are invited.

As various analyses by the Deseret News have shown over the years, much of the spending on lawmakers happens at events like the University of Utah's annual dinner/gymnastic event, a night at the Utah Symphony or when lobbyists entertain legislators who attend out-of-state meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

HB267 could even wipe out the public reporting of small groups of legislators being feted by lobbyists, as one event in 2009 shows.

Last June a local nonprofit organization invited all 104 legislators to a golfing day. Only seven legislators actually attended. Under the current law, the event was reported by the group with how much was spent on legislators, although the names of the attending legislators were not listed because that name-reporting is currently exempt.

But under HB267, explained Garn, now the event itself, and its cost, would be exempt from reporting because all lawmakers were originally invited. The public and media would not know that the event was held at all, nor how much was spent on legislators.

Even further, the new bill says that the speaker of the House and president of the Senate can allow lobbyists to pay for a lawmaker's travel, lodging and meals if the event has to do with a conference/official duty. In the past, such travel was listed on the lobbyists' reports and, if over $50 in one day, the names of the attending legislators were noted.

Utah state government used to pay for legislators to attend the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think-tank/legislative group. However, under recent budget constraints trips to ALEC are no longer paid for by the state.

Under the proposed bill the top two leaders could allow lobbyists to pay legislators' ALEC expenses and that would not be reported at all.

Still, the five bills passed by the House committee Monday do take major steps forward, even with some of the possible troubles detailed above.

There would be more detailed reporting by candidates and officeholders of their financial and personal conflicts of interests.

An independent ethics commission would be set up in the Constitution.

Personal use of campaign funds would be limited — lawmakers can now use their campaign funds for any purpose, even just give the money to themselves.

And most individual gifts over $10 from lobbyists to legislators would be banned.

One well-known lobbyist, who each year spends more than $1,000 buying meals and entertainment for legislators, told the newspaper last week that if HB267 passed "it would really change how we interact with legislators."

The bill says any meal over $10 must come with the accepting legislator's name attached — and many legislators don't like their names listed, the lobbyist said.

Lobbyists now can spend up to $25 before they must report the name of the legislator receiving the meal.

"You can buy a dinner for $25," the lobbyist said. "You can only buy a cheap lunch for under $10."

The bills also would likely change how lobbyists relay information to many legislators, which now is often done over lunch or dinner.