There will always be conflicts of interest as long as our state Legislature is part-time. Our legislators have real jobs and real lives just like the rest of us. They need to make a living like anyone else, and it is quite natural, even if a bit disconcerting to us, for them to have business contacts and relationships based on their circle of friends who may, at times, be looking for political favors.
This systemic set of circumstances is certainly not their fault nor is it something on which we can pin a label of dishonesty or corruption. But we can address these circumstances and try to mitigate their potential for abuse.
Our part-time state legislators should be held to a higher standard when it comes to many things, but especially their business dealings. And, by the way, this higher standard cuts both ways: Businessmen ought to be held to a higher standard when it comes to their political dealings. For instance, the new soccer stadium deal in Sandy seems above board as a business deal. As a political deal, it still feels slimy to many people. Why? Because of the impression that political favors, not principles of good government or of the free market, made it happen. We get the same uncomfortable feeling with what look like insider business deals at taxpayer expense such as the Fund of Funds and Utah Science and Technology Research Initiative-related projects.
A serious discussion about a new standard of ethics surrounding conflicts of interest is timely. It is time to get very transparent and accountable about our current system of legislative procedures. We must recognize that conflicts of interest entail no gray areas, only choices. A legislator who is part of a much-needed nuclear energy effort in the state and a legislator who is part of our esteemed public school system represent the same ethical dilemma. Both legislators face a conflict of interest.
The new rule should instruct legislators to err on the side of caution and recuse themselves from a vote. If a member has a question about a potential conflict, then let that member seek counsel from the Ethics Committee. But let it be made clear all legislators are accountable for their own decisions. In these conflicted situations legislators may use their specialized knowledge of a subject to testify, persuade and argue, but not to vote. We also should expect Senate and House leadership to take a very accurate and detailed inventory of existing and potential conflicts among members of their respective bodies and then ensure that no committee assignments are made that exacerbate those conflicts.
Regular people can smell a stinky deal a mile away. We know an existing or potential conflict when we see it.
Again, these suggestions are not intended to point fingers at any legislator. The problem at hand for our elected officials is largely systemic. One long-term answer, of course, is to get state government out of the business of business or, as we politely call it, economic development. Another answer is to limit the scope of government across the board.
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The role of Senate and House leadership should be to encourage individual accountability, not to baby-sit legislators in their ethical choices. Leaders should set some hard and fast rules, then get out of the way of their colleagues' personal accountability.
Constructive action on this issue will take guts. The worst argument will be inaction because "we're honest people." So were our nation's Founding Fathers, but they were men of action who knew the limits of their own human nature and exercised the wisdom to create proper checks and balances.
Paul T. Mero is president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank.