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Utah high court stops ethics reform ballot initiative in its tracks

Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 5:03 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The issue of legislative ethics reform won't go before voters, at least not this year.

The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a lower court's summary judgment decision that would have given members of Utahns for Ethical Government an opportunity to gather signatures for an initiative to be included on the November ballot.

"This is a hugely disappointing turn of events," UEG representative David Irvine said Tuesday.

The group had intended for citizens to vote in November on a proposed code of conduct for state lawmakers. 

"If a grassroots group like UEG, which has been probably better organized than any other grassroots group I can think of; if we can't do this, I don't believe anyone short of the National Rifle Association and its millions of dollars could pull one off," Irvine said, adding that the high court's move is a "serious setback" for citizens, who have a constitutional right to co-equal legislative power.

UEG failed to gather enough signatures by the deadline for the 2010 ballot, but contended that it should have more time to make it on the ballot this year. Less than six months after the April 2010 deadline, UEG presented about 120,000 signatures to the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office, whereas 94,500 were required.

To make it on the 2012 ballot, officials said UEG had to start over at the beginning. The group then filed a lawsuit asking the state to certify signatures already collected and put the measure on the ballot.

A written opinion did not accompany the court's order issued Tuesday, but is expected in the future. Members of UEG planned to hold a press conference Wednesday to air their opinions and provide a more complete reaction to the Supreme Court action.

UEG's ethics proposal contained provisions for an independent ethics commission and strict code of ethics for lawmakers, including limits on campaign contributions, gifts and how lobbyists interact with legislators. The group had several hundred volunteers gathering signatures on the issue over the course of about three years. Irvine said that time has essentially been wasted and the statewide initiative right has been "erased."

Since the group began its cause, lawmakers passed a series of bills that paved the way for a similar commission, more stringent conflict of interest reporting processes, a gift ban over $10 and stricter control over campaign finances, among other things.

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