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Bob Bernick Jr.: Kudos to Legislature for great crop of reform bills

Most of the 2010 government ethics reform bills have been introduced, so you can now read the measures and make your own judgments. Here are some of mine, with 25 years of watching government reform efforts come and go.

First, in general, what Republican and Democratic lawmakers are suggesting is miles ahead of anything they have done before.

There are some concerns, which I detail below.

But overall, the package of five to 10 bills (the numbers tend to grow) is the most complete, far-reaching and inclusive that I've ever seen. And the House overwhelmingly voted to pass five of the bills on Thursday.

Of course, these bills, constitutional amendments and internal rules are subject to amendment. And it will be especially interesting to see what the Senate does with them — as a package and individually. What some may call "small" changes in reality could be very big.

One example: The lobbyist gift bill now says that any "gift" over $10 is banned. Any meal over $10 can be accepted, but the amount and the name of the legislator who took the meal must be listed by the lobbyist.

Change the $10 gift to $50, or change the name reporting on a meal to $25 or $50, and the whole bill basically becomes worthless — no real change from what we have now. A few amendments can turn a good ethics bill into a joke. We'll see whose laughing by session's end.

Here are some shortfalls I see in otherwise good ethics legislation:

The independent ethics commission set up in a constitutional amendment and ensuing rules is a fine idea whose time has come (HJR15, SJR3, SB136). And I accept the makeup of the commission — three retired judges, a retired House member and a retired senator.

But the standard of proof is too high for any lawmaker wrongdoing. In addition, saying a citizen must have "firsthand" knowledge of a lawmaker's wrongdoing before the citizen can sign a complaint is way too strict. In what situation will a citizen personally observe a questionable action by a legislator?

The commission's work is already secret, with penalties for revealing a complaint. That is enough. If citizens hear of troublesome lawmaker actions, they should be able to make a complaint and then, in private, let the five-member commission review the matter. If action can be taken by a majority vote (not the bill's supermajority vote of four commissioners), then that is protection enough for weeding out frivolous complaints.

Campaign contribution limits suggested in the leaders' bill are quite high. (No bill has been numbered yet, but leaders say it's coming.) Few senators get $10,000 donations, few House members get $5,000 donations. Those donation limits automatically go up with inflation, so even over time such limits wouldn't become more restrictive.

If the real goal of campaign contribution limits is to curtail special-interest influence on state officeholders, it's questionable if these high limits will work.

Restricting personal use of campaign funds is a needed reform (HB124). And stopping legislators from giving themselves tens of thousands of dollars is the bill's goal.

But too many exemptions water down the effort. Watch amendments to this bill carefully.

Greater detail in listing lawmaker conflicts of interest really is achieved in these bills ((HB270, HJR14).

Finally, gifts to legislators from lobbyists (HB267). This has been a bugaboo for lawmakers for the 30 years I've watched the Legislature.

HB267 makes great strides, including outright banning non-meal gifts over $10. No more expensive Jazz tickets. No $200 rounds of golf in Hawaii. But still there are some concerns. No reporting of gifts under $10. No reporting of meals provided to the Legislature as a whole or groups of legislators, like a party caucus. The House speaker and Senate president can exempt a member's lobbyist-paid trip to a national legislative convention.

Not having all monies spent on legislators reported means the public won't know how much is really spent — the current $150,000 total could drop to $75,000 or less.

And under the bill a lobbyist could invite the eight Senate Democrats to a meal at the New Yorker restaurant and not report that $1,000 at all. A lobbyist could pay $1,500 to send a legislator to a conference like the American Legislative Exchange Council (with a leader's approval) and there would be no listing of that, either.

Am I nitpicking in my concerns? Perhaps.

But the idea behind all these reform bills is to provide the public more information about legislative conduct — and to ban outright some conduct.

Taking great leaps forward is great. Stopping just short of what is really needed in a few cases would be regrettable — and unnecessary. Do the whole job now.

Still, congratulations to the sponsors of these bills, and thanks for all the hard work up through introduction. Let's hope the final products aren't amended into just more weak attempts at ethics reform.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.