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Ethics petition vital to reform in state Legislature

Nathaniel Anderton, left, and Michael Johnson sit in the gallery during the opening session of the Utah Legislature.
Nathaniel Anderton, left, and Michael Johnson sit in the gallery during the opening session of the Utah Legislature.
Keith Johnson, Deseret News

There was a time when Utah voters didn't worry about the ethical standards of elected officials. "The system" took care of itself. The state Legislature had a healthy balance of political viewpoints. Journalists were aggressive, well-trained and informed. Lobbyists operated on the margins; few were full time, well paid or influential. Politicians were often statesmen, not political ideologues. And voters were generally well-informed.

Those vital checks and balances don't exist today. The Legislature is politically one-sided, few journalists wander the halls of the state Capitol, ever-present lobbyists seek influence by any and all means, statesmen and stateswomen are scarce, and the public prefers propaganda over information. No wonder elected officials are tempted to push the limits of ethical behavior.

Poll after poll shows voter concern over abuse of ethical standards. In response, a citizens committee called Utahns for Ethical Government developed a petition to help voters raise their voices about the issue. If you believe in good government, sign the petition. It's the first step in the long democratic process necessary to identify reasonable ethical guidelines.

Actually, it's probably the third, fourth or fifth step along the way. The first step was public unrest. Citizens complained about too much influence peddling, too much vote buying and too much favoritism. Lawmakers recognized the public unrest, but their response was more cynical than realistic. They pretended concern, but they didn't want to give up power or perks. So-called "ethics bills" were largely cosmetic — designed to fool voters into believing the problem was solved.

After years of this charade, it became obvious the Legislature would not voluntarily respond to voter complaints. Concerned citizens formed Utahns for Ethical Government to move the process along. Members include representatives from business, education, government and other groups. Some are former legislators who remember a time when ethics were part of the Legislature's culture.

Most of the men and women we elect are good individuals. That isn't the issue. The Capitol culture has changed. It's difficult to hold your freeway speed at 65 mph when everyone around you is going 70 or 75. At the Legislature these days, money, tickets, meals and other "benefits" fly by at 80 or 90 mph (figuratively). The gift-givers do what lobbyists are paid to do — influence legislation. It's difficult to reject tempting gifts when no one knows either the boundaries or the consequences.

Creating ethical standards is a way to make it easier for the good men and women who represent us to resist temptation. Some object to that line of thinking, but it's the basis for most laws, moral standards and social mores — the "contracts" that keep society functioning.

The petition does not impose ethical standards. It simply opens the subject for public discussion so voters can decide by majority vote in November whether they want to put a process in place. Voters will have a chance to vote "yes" or "no" on specific ethical standards, on the enforcement process, and on sanctions to be applied when standards are violated.

But the process cannot proceed unless citizens approve the concept by signing the petition.

In addition to the ethics petition, two others are circulating. One involves the redistricting process and the way voting district boundaries are determined. Redrawing boundary lines must be done after this year's census. The last attempt was badly botched. This petition begins the process to correct that serious problem.

The third petition deals with campaign contributions and the disposition of leftover campaign funds. It wasn't a problem when campaign costs were small, but in recent years the cost of conducting campaigns — even for minor offices — has skyrocketed. The petition is the first step in making sure campaign funding mechanisms are not abused.

You can sign none or all of these petitions. Each deserves support.

In addition, the Legislature may offer a constitutional amendment to create some sort of legislative committee to look at ethical standards. This is simply a cynical stalling tactic to negate the more practical citizen petition. Make no mistake about it, if the petition were not circulating, the Legislature would not act. And if — when the April deadline comes — the petition doesn't have enough signatures, you can be sure the legislative effort will fade away ... or be altered into meaninglessness.

Add your voice to the many voices asking for ethical behavior by elected officials. Sign the petition!

G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words. He is a long-time observer of the political scene. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University. E-mail: dongale@words3.com.