My view: Utah democracy 'swallowed' by industrial lobbyists?

By Cherise Udell

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 10 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah Moms for Clean Air's experience at the Legislature this past session revealed that many elected officials in Utah have also been seduced by big money and power.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

The John Swallow case showcases political corruption in Utah at its finest. In essence, Swallow, as Utah attorney general, had a “For Sale” sign on his office door. Unfortunately, what Swallow did was not unique — it is only that he got caught and thoroughly exposed.

Utah Moms for Clean Air's experience at the Legislature this past session revealed that many elected officials in Utah have also been seduced by big money and power. This was demonstrated to us with daily high-fives and chummy back-slapping between many state legislators and industry lobbyists. And that was in public view — who knows what was happening behind closed doors!

Actually, we do know. These industrial lobbyists were making every effort to undermine legislation that would impact big industry's ability to pollute. These same lobbyists — many from the law firm Parsons, Behle & Latimer — also suggest and help write pollution-friendly legislation. Yes, these pro-pollution lobbyists get paid big bucks for big results (they have to, otherwise who would want to be pro-pollution?). The outcome is that our democracy is compromised and our lungs suffer.

In another example, we regularly contacted lawmakers and tried to arrange meetings. Occasionally, a lawmaker would come out in front of the chambers and listen for two or three minutes before dashing back inside. Meanwhile, we watched industry lobbyists being readily escorted to the private spaces hidden behind the Senate chambers.

We knew industrial lobbyists crawled on the hill like red ants raiding a picnic, but were shocked to see that Rio Tinto/Kennecott, Utah's biggest polluter, alone had 14 registered lobbyists, while medical waste incinerator Stericycle had eight. A few of these lobbyists are what some would call mercenaries, in that they lobby for multiple big polluters.

It quickly became clear that this army of pro-pollution lobbyists stationed full-time on the hill is no match for the public. After all, how many citizens can take six weeks off work to spend all day at the Capitol during a legislative session? How many citizens have the legal background to understand, let alone write, complex bills? How many citizens can show up to testify at committee hearings with only 24-hour notice? How many nonprofits can afford to hire a hotshot lobbyist from Parsons, Behle & Latimer, who brag on their website, “[we] not only assist clients in complying with the law, we help shape it.”

Unfortunately, the access these paid lobbyists enjoy matters tremendously. As Sen. Jim Dabakis lamented during a committee hearing, “The system is rigged to not have clean air.” Consequently, mandatory rules are made voluntary, enforcement measures the public wants are removed, and the government entities designed to protect our health become industry puppets.

Citizens demanding clean air truly fight a good battle in an unfair war.

But remember, we do have truth, justice and what is morally right on our side. We can make our own army of determined citizens — no one is stopping us. At our January Clean Air No Excuses rally, an army of over 4,000 citizens was assembled. In the end, our democracy, when vigorously utilized, does ensure that justice prevails over injustice. The recent resignation of John Swallow attests to this. So does the fact that despite the system being rigged against us, numerous clean air bills did pass.

So, to the Utah citizens that exercised their democratic rights this past session, Utah Moms for Clean Air thanks you. For all of those who did not, but wanted to, we encourage you to get involved.

Last, but not least, to all of the senators and representatives who truly looked out for the public good in spite of temptation not to, we celebrate you as heroes in the good fight for what is right.

Cherise Udell is the founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air.

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