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Utah Legislature: Lawmakers, not citizens, will decide ethics rules

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite what a citizen initiative says about how an independent legislative ethics commission would be organized and run, lawmakers themselves will make that decision.

That was the clear message Monday afternoon as the Senate Ethics Committee approved a package of ethics bills.

A separate bill in that package deals with what kind of gifts and meals lawmakers may accept from lobbyists.

And senators amended that House bill so the Senate president and House speaker may give a waiver to gift restrictions so that a legislator could accept travel, lodging, food, beverage and cost of entertainment for a trip that has something to do with legislative duty.

Not only could a legislator take such benefits from a lobbyist, but the cost of those items and the lawmaker's name would be secret — not revealed at all.

House GOP leaders accepted that Senate change to get HB267 through that body. But House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he will move a change in House rules so that such speaker-approved trips/expenses are publicly disclosed.

"If the Senate won't agree to a joint rule" disclosing how much was spent on such a trip and on whom, "we'll do it in the House with a House rule," said Clark. "I see this as a land mine. And one I see. I step on enough land mines that I don't see up here, I'm not going to step on one I see."

Despite amendments made to the House ethics bills Monday in the Senate committee, the package is still one of the most far-reaching efforts ever in the Utah Legislature on so-called government reform.

Utahns for Ethical Government, the citizen ethics initiative now out for voter signatures, still sees loopholes in lawmakers' efforts.

Karl Snow, a former GOP state senator, was adamant as he pushed committee members to say if the UEG initiative gets on the ballot and HJR15 — a constitutional amendment to create an independent ethics commission — also makes the ballot, whether the initiative's outline on how the commission operates will be valid.

No, said John Fellows, chief attorney for the Legislature.

The state Constitution says only legislators will judge colleagues' ability to serve. And they do that through legislative rule. And internal rules can't be changed through initiative, Fellows said. In short, residents don't get a say in internal ethics rules and regulations.

After Snow and various senators argued constitutional language back and forth, Dixie Huefner of UEG asked that should the initiative make the ballot — supporters have until April 15 to gather 95,000 signatures — and should the 2010 Legislature put HJR15 on the ballot, that legislators "make it clear to the public what this means, what (citizens) are really voting on."

If, in fact, voting for the constitutional amendment (HJR15) precludes parts of the initiative, exactly what parts of the initiative would still be valid, or if any part of the initiative would be valid, she said.

"We owe at least that much to the public," Huefner said.

Back to HB267, the lobbyist gift bill. Sponsor Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, House majority leader, said he appreciates the hard work that several senators have put into making the bill acceptable to most senators.

But the newly created exemption — some may call it a loophole — could be huge, Garn said after the committee meeting.

For example, several years ago two Democratic senators accepted a lobbyist-paid trip to Florida to view privately operated prisons, which were under consideration by the Legislature, and play a round of golf in Boca Raton. The trip cost around $1,500 each, and under current rules was publicly reported on the lobbyist's financial statements.

But under the Senate amendment, if the Senate president gave permission for such a trip it would not be reported at all.

The change could put "real pressure" on the Senate and House leaders, and if later such a trip became public the leader could be criticized for allowing it, as well as the legislators for taking it, several House members said.

On the other hand, leaders are elected by their own caucus members, and so there would be pressure to approve such unreported trips for their members.