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Utah high court to decide if legislative ethics initiative gets on November ballot

Justices question lawmakers' motives in tightening signature requirements

Published: Thursday, July 26 2012 3:57 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns might get to vote on a legislative ethics reform initiative that has been tangled up in court for more than a year.

The Utah Supreme Court could decide as early as next week whether to allow Utahns for Ethical Government's proposed code of conduct for state lawmakers a place on the November ballot.

UEG representative David Irvine said residents have a "sacrosanct" constitutional right to initiate laws through referendums.

"The people's legislative power is co-equal to that of the Legislature itself," said Irvine, an attorney and former Utah House member.

Utah Solicitor General Bridget Romano doesn't disagree that residents should have the opportunity to vote on the initiative. But she said UEG failed to meet state requirements to get it on the 2010 or 2012 ballot.

Utahns for Ethical Government filed a lawsuit in March 2011 seeking a court order compelling the state to certify petitions to put the ethics reform measure on the 2012 ballot. It contends the state elections office has dragged its feet in determining whether the group collected the required number of signatures.

Lt. Gov Greg Bell, who oversees the state elections, and UEG disagree over a time provision for gathering the names in the state's initiative petition law.

The group did not solicit enough signatures between August 2009 and an April 15, 2010, deadline to get the initiative on that year's ballot.

UEG contends the law allows one year from the time the petition is filed to collect the required signatures, giving it until Aug. 12, 2010, to make the 2012 ballot. By that date, UEG had about 120,000 signatures, well over the 94,500 required.

Bell's office argues that because the group failed to qualify for the 2010 ballot, it should have started over.

UEG lawyer Alan Smith said Utah's initiative petition law is confusing. "Listening to the debate, what we needed was a Urim and Thummim to interpret this statute," he told high court.

The matter now rests with the five justices. State attorneys asked for a decision by the first week of August to allow elections officials time to get the measure on the November ballot should the decision go that way.

Justice Thomas Lee said he's "struggling" with putting the initiative on the 2012 ballot because those who signed the petitions thought they were doing it for 2010.

"I guess I'm not sure we can unscramble that egg," he said. "You're asking us to do something extraordinary."

In addition, Lee said things have changed since then, including the Legislature adopting some of the ethics reforms proposed in the initiative. "There's a lot of water under the bridge since 2010," he said.

Legislative attorney Emily Brown agreed, telling the court some of those petition signers might have died, moved or committed a felony, making their signatures invalid.

One of those changes came in the waning hours of the 2011 Legislature when lawmakers made it more difficult to get citizen initiatives and referendums on the election ballot.

The new law requires signatures from 10 percent of residents in 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts who voted in the previous presidential election. The old statute based the number on gubernatorial elections, which tend to attract fewer voters than presidential elections.

Justice Jill Parrish questioned lawmakers' motive for the change, asking whether it was calculated to make it more difficult for UEG to meet the signature requirement.

Lee also weighed in saying, "What happened here was the goal post was raised after the ball was in the air."

Irvine said lawmakers and state agencies have done "a lot of twisting and turning" to keep the initiative off the ballot.

UEG's reform plan includes an independent ethics commission and strict code of ethics for lawmakers, including limits on campaign contributions, gifts and how lobbyists interact with legislators.

In 2010, the Legislature passed a dozen-bill package that includes a constitutional amendment setting up an independent ethics commission; tougher conflict of interest reporting for lawmakers and candidates alike; more disclosure of campaign financing; lobbyist gift ban over $10, with reporting lawmakers' names who take a meal costing more than $10; and stricter control over personal use of campaign accounts.

Irvine said that's not good enough. "They have addressed it with one loophole after another," he said.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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