Wanted: ethics reforms

Utahns in poll also support an independent redistricting panel

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 16 2009 12:09 a.m. MDT

Utahns really want ethics reforms in the Legislature, including an independent commission to hear complaints against and recommend penalties for wayward lawmakers, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.

And most residents also want an independent redistricting commission to suggest redrawn boundaries for legislators and U.S. House members, found Dan Jones & Associates in a just-completed survey for the newspaper and TV station.

Two citizen groups, one called Utahns for Ethical Government, the other called Fair Boundaries, are looking to get such initiatives on the 2010 ballot.

Of course, a lot can happen in upcoming debates on the initiatives, and voters' views can change.

But this early poll shows overwhelming support — 85 percent — for the ethics commission/legislative code of conduct initiative, Jones found in a survey conducted Sept. 11-13. The poll is of 410 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Asked whether they would support an independent redistricting commission, 60 percent said "definitely" or "probably." Only 25 percent opposed setting up such a commission, which would recommend the redrawing of boundaries after each 10-year census. The next redrawing will come in 2011.

Former GOP state representative Kim Burningham, chairman of UEG, said, "We're delighted" by the poll results. "And those results reflect what I'm hearing from my neighbors in talking about this initiative — great support."

Mary Bishop, Salt Lake County director of Fair Boundaries, said her group is finding even greater support than 60 percent of voters. "For every 100 people who agree to sign our petition, maybe one will refuse," said Bishop, who added, "the support we're finding is just wonderful."

The devil is in the details of both commission initiatives, said House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara.

"I've said all along I'm not opposed to the help in the process" of either redistricting or ethics reform. A lot has recently been done on campaign and ethics reform — providing more transparency in state government than ever before, he said.

But, he said, no one would buy a car before test driving it, and perhaps it is better to "test drive" alternatives before jumping in through initiative laws that could have serious, real-life consequences.

That opens the door for the GOP-controlled Legislature to do something in both areas in its 2010 session — and then ask voters to defeat the initiatives and let the lawmaker-driven alternatives play out to see if they're adequate.

The Utah Constitution says the Legislature is in charge of ethical conduct for its own members, and says the Legislature itself will redraw political boundaries following a census.

Petition supporters say that's why both petitions were written as only "recommendations" by independent commissions to the Legislature, which would still have the final say on legislative behavior and redistricting.

Utah's Republican Party has had two-thirds majorities in the Legislature for upward of 25 years. And so it's natural for GOP legislative leaders to look toward their own party faithful to oppose the initiatives — and so keep ethical and redistricting matters solely in the majority's hands.

Unfortunately for the leaders, Jones found that 85 percent of Republicans support the ethics initiative, with 60 percent support for the redistricting initiative — the same majorities as found in the general population.

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