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Utah Legislature: Senate ready to move on ethics package

SALT LAKE CITY — After several weeks of private study and debate, state Senate Republicans are ready to move on a package of ethics bills already passed by the Utah House.

"A few tweaks will be made" on the five bills, said House Minority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, who shepherded them through the House.

One substantial change was agreed upon, he added.

Garn's lobbyist gift bill will be amended to allow lawmakers to take a trip paid for by lobbyists, as long as the costs are publicly reported along with the legislator's name.

Garn's original bill would have banned such a trip, unless it was for a legislative conference approved by the Senate president or House speaker.

"You don't know when you're in violation," said Senate Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, so the caucus backed some changes. "We now can draw a bright line."

Several years ago, two Democratic state senators took a lobbyist-paid-for trip to Florida, where they visited for-profit private correctional facilities run by the lobbyist's firm and played a round of golf in Boca Raton. Following current rules, the lawmakers' names and the amount spent on them were reported, as would apparently still be allowed under Senate-proposed amendments.

The Senate compromises were worked out through a select group of GOP senators headed by Niederhauser and Sens. John Valentine, R-Orem, and Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said Garn, who added that without such help, the bills might have been in trouble in the Senate.

Senate Republicans have discussed the ethics bills several times in their closed GOP caucuses, with approval coming Thursday.

The bills go before the Senate Ethics Committee Monday at noon for a public hearing.

One ethics bill promised by GOP leaders, which limits donations made to legislative, statewide and state school board candidate campaigns, has yet to surface.

Garn said it will soon be introduced. But sources say a number of legislators don't like limiting how much they can take from any donor. Utah is one of the few states with no campaign contribution limits.

Campaign donation limits were recommended by the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy (the GOP leaders' campaign cap reflects those limits) and in the Utahns for Ethical Conduct citizen initiative now being circulated for voter signatures.