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Utah Legislature: Ethics showdown possible at ballot box

Published: Friday, March 5 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers' homegrown ethics reform package cleared hurdles in the House and Senate Thursday and set up a possible showdown this fall at the ballot box.

While seven different bills aimed at ethics issues where passed by both bodies Thursday, two of the bills make comprehensive changes to the current system for policing and punishing lawmaker misconduct and create a new body to oversee that process.

The Senate finalized a constitutional amendment, HJR15, that would establish an independent ethics commission, pending voter approval, while the House OK'd a resolution, SJR3, that outlines the makeup of the new panel and establishes how it will review complaints.

The action lays the groundwork for possible competing ethics items on statewide ballots in November — the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendment and a citizens' initiative from Utahns For Ethical Government that seeks to establish an independent ethics commission to oversee a new, stringent code of conduct.

In the event both proposals get voter approval, it is almost certain that the Utah Supreme Court would play a role in resolving the conflict because the competing plans cannot legally coexist.

Senate Minority Whip Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, attempted to add language during floor debate of HJR15 spelling out that the state-created commission could be changed through a citizens' initiative. That would have paved the way for a UEG plan superseding the Legislature's proposal in the event it gathers the 95,000 signatures needed, gets the measure on the ballot and wins voter approval.

Some GOP senators, however, argued that Romero's amendment would violate constitutionally mandated separation of powers, and the measure was defeated.

In the House, an attempt to amend SJR3 to soften up a strict minimum standard for an ethics complaint also met resistance.

Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, looked to change the requirement that two registered voters lodge a grievance with at least one of them having firsthand knowledge. She wanted it be two voters with reasonably credible information.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said he strongly opposed the change and argued a complaint needed to be "100 percent verifiable" and that those bringing it forward "better be willing to back it up with absolute knowledge." Noel went on to note the stress suffered by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and his family after a well-publicized 2008 controversy involving allegations of ethical misconduct against Hughes that were eventually dropped. Hughes spoked in favor of the new commission and stressed that raising the standard for lodging a complaint was a necessary improvement and would keep political game-playing out of the system.

"I just believe the public will lose confidence that this is a real process if you have people accusing one party against another," Hughes said.

Allen's proposed amendment was rejected before the House approved SJR3 on a 71-2 vote.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com

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