As a group, men and women serving in the Utah Legislature are ethical and honest. But they function in an atmosphere where temptation is great, where influence is sought and pressures applied, where money, gifts and favors change hands - largely hidden from the public.
Meaningful reform is long overdue and the legislative session beginning in January appears to be a good time to tackle some of these thorny issues. While there is a kind of built-in resistance to reform, there also is a growing sense of the need for change.In the past, some lawmakers have objected to tough ethics rules on the grounds that such rules imply they need watching. Yet the question can be asked from the other side: If there's nothing to hide, why object to clear-cut disclosure rules?
As Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. pointed out in a five-part series this week, the Legislature lacks definitions of what constitutes conflict of interest, ethics rules are vague, and there have even been instances of lawmakers working as paid lobbyists while serving as legislators.
There are loopholes in campaign fund disclosure laws, lack of conflict of interest or ethics rules, no need to report gifts from lobbyists, and no reports required from lobbyists, to name just a few problems.
Because efforts at reform have died in the Legislature each year, observers can be excused for thinking that legislators don't want the public to know where they get campaign money, how they spend it, and how much they receive from lobbyists.
In a part-time Legislature made up of citizen-lawmakers, there are bound to be some conflicts of interest. Working out a system to make any such conflicts public will take time and may not be possible in the limited session just ahead. But it should be worked on.
There is no such excuse for campaign fund and lobbying reform.
The law now requires candidates to report only campaign funds they receive between the April 15 filing date and the election. Donations accepted outside those parameters are treated as if they don't exist. Leftover campaign funds can be used for any purpose. The law needs to be changed to make sure that all campaign funds are reported.
Gifts from lobbyists should be disclosed by legislators as well, including the amount and from whom they came. Lobbyists should be required to report their direct or indirect contributions or gifts.
These are not terribly difficult requirements but would do much to show who is receiving what financial support from whom. That would go a long way to deter secret influence-peddling by lobbyists.
A good rule of thumb is that the more someone wants something concealed, the more reason there is to shine a light on it.