Because of the attorney general's circumstances, the fact there's been so much attention, that's something people are thinking about right now. —University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank
SALT LAKE CITY — Having an open and ethical government tops the list of Utah voter priorities in a newly released poll by Gov. Gary Herbert, likely a result of the scandal surrounding Attorney General John Swallow.
"Because of the attorney general's circumstances, the fact there's been so much attention, that's something people are thinking about right now," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.
While voters are always concerned about government openness and ethics, "those don't tend to be top of mind things people talk about unless there's some type of political scandal," Burbank said.
The allegations against Swallow now under investigation by federal, state and local authorities may also have affected the governor's approval rating, Burbank said, measured at 69 percent.
"Sixty-nine percent is not bad. Lots of politicians would love to have that approval rating," he said.
But past governors, including Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mike Leavitt, had approval ratings of more than 80 percent.
"Some of that weakness, I think, probably does stem from what's going on with the attorney general, not because it's the governor's problem per se," Burbank said, but because voters see the state leader as somewhat responsible for whatever goes wrong.
Bob Henrie, a partner in R&R Partners and a political adviser to the governor who provided the poll results, said he did not believe they were specifically driven by Swallow's situation.
The attorney general faces multiple accusations, including that he promised special consideration to a trio of telemarketers in exchange for contributions to former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's re-election campaign.
"Historically, good ethics standards already rates high," Henrie said. "The news around Swallow and perhaps some of the other, national news may make people a little more attuned to that right now and make it a priority."
Henrie said the governor "is not a knee-jerk responder type of guy," but will look at the importance respondents placed on open and ethical government "and say, 'This needs some more specific and thoughtful consideration.'"
The April poll asked 600 registered voters statewide to rate a dozen issues on a scale of 1 to 5. "Open disclosure and ethics reform" rated 4.4, followed by "creating new jobs" at 4.38 and "focus on economic growth" at 4.2.
At the bottom of the list were "more background checks for guns," at 3.62, "clean air and renewable energy initiatives" at 3.57 and "modest tax increase to expand education funding" at 3.54.
The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Only 6 percent of respondents had a very unfavorable impression of Herbert, while 34 percent had a very favorable impression and 35 percent somewhat favorable. Henrie said Herbert's mean score, 1.87, is the best of any statewide officeholder.
Although the poll also measured the approval ratings of other statewide officeholders, including Swallow, Henrie declined to share that information. He did offer that the Utah Legislature has a 59 percent approval rating and 25 percent for the U.S. Congress.
No questions were asked about Swallow other than his favorability, Henrie said.
He said he does not believe the attorney general's situation is having "a tangible negative impact" on state government.
"I think it's something that everybody sees and reads and is troubled by, but I don't think they think the wheels of the government have slowed down or come to a standstill," Henrie said.
Still, he said, the public is anxious to see a resolution. "As I'm sure does John Swallow," Henrie said. "I think it is a real frustration for everybody."
In April, the governor called on federal investigators to "either charge or exonerate" Swallow and said he was perturbed their inquiry was taking so long, leaving an "unacceptable" cloud hanging over the state's top law enforcement office.
Burbank said the public expects the governor, as the leader of the state and of the Republican Party, to come up with proposals to help avoid a similar situation in the future.
"As this situation progresses," Burbank said, "there's going to be more and more pressure on Gov. Herbert."