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Utah Legislature: House approves ethics reform bills

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House on Thursday passed most of the major ethics bills to be considered this session, including a proposed constitutional amendment that would set up an independent ethics commission.

However, in debate over HJR15 it became apparent that should Utahns adopt the commission amendment in November, only lawmakers themselves could say how that commission operates.

And that idea is severely criticized by supporters of a citizen initiative that, while dealing with a number of ethics concerns, seeks at its core an independent ethics commission. The Utahns for Ethical Government initiative details how the commission would be set up, as well as its standards and operations.

Kim Burningham, chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government, said, "I believe that the state Capitol is 'our house.' That is, it belongs to the citizens." But legislators are trying to take that away, he said.

"The Constitution provides that the people can make rules on legislative ethics by initiative. This is an important check and balance, providing for citizen watchdogs for legislative abuses. The amendment sponsored by (House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara), "if I understood the comments made in the debate correctly, will do away with this sacred right where the people govern their own house and make rules regulating the conduct of their own legislators."

But Clark and lawmakers from both parties disagreed.

Clark said putting an independent ethics commission into the state Constitution "enshrines it" forever, and it can't be repealed by the Legislature alone, as it could be if it was just in law, as the initiative would do.

A companion piece of legislation, SJR3, would put into legislative rules how the commission sought by the Legislature would operate. The resolution is expected to have a committee hearing Monday.

And the amendment/rule combination is at the heart of the current debate, because it appears that such a combination would take citizen initiatives out of any changes to the ethics hearing process, and could have even deeper consequences. For instance, it calls into question whether any legislative rule dealing with conflicts of interests, code of conduct or any other matter, could be changed by citizen initiative.

Even some Democratic representatives who earlier had questioned the amendment/rule tactic were on board Thursday.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, an attorney who sat on the Interim Ethics Study Committee, which debated the merits of an independent ethics commission last summer, said he believes adopting commission operations in rule stops dead the Utahns for Ethical Government's commission in law. And upon reflection, King agrees with that.

Because the state Constitution says legislators themselves will decide the qualifications of their own members, and alone can discipline them, residents should not be able to change that process, King said.

Ultimately, it may take a Utah Supreme Court decision as to whether residents can change legislative rule by initiative.

But, said Burningham, it is unfortunate that legislators would thumb their noses at Utahns this way.

"I'm very troubled," added Burningham, "that legislators would deny citizens their right to decide legislative ethics."

Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, said it is important to her that other parts of the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative, including a strict legislative code of ethics, can be imposed by voters.

"We should walk carefully," she said. The state Constitution guarantees that citizens can seek redress to legislative inaction, or improper action, through the initiative process. And that citizen right "must be honored" by the Legislature, even though lawmakers have already made it "extraordinarily difficult" to get enough voter signatures to get a measure on the ballot.

However, later in the debate, Clark said that over this coming summer, lawmakers will study expanding and rewriting the code of ethics in rules. And if that route is, again, taken by the 2011 Legislature, then the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative's ethical code — if it is adopted by voters this fall — could be invalidated.

Besides the above debate, the five bills passed Thursday are by far the most far-reaching ethics reform taken by the Legislature, besides the ethics commission dealing with lobbyist gift bans, restricting personal use of campaign funds and greater disclosure of conflicts of interests.

The bills now go to the Senate. The Senate GOP caucus started talking about the bills Thursday, said Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, and doesn't have any problems with them "conceptually." But, Niederhauser said, "we're going to take some time and go over them one at a time."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche