Questions raised about possible conflict of interest by state Sen. Stephen Rees, R-West Valley, once again show the need of legislators to strengthen and better define such conflicts.
The Senate took a step in the right direction last session - adopting a conflict of interest rule change that required more disclosure of legislators' business affairs. But the House didn't consider the resolution in the final hectic days of the session.House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy, says that was an oversight. He supports strengthening ethics rules and predicts some action will be taken in the 1992 general session next January.
Of course, there will always be conflicts of interest in a part-time, citizen Legislature. I know of no one who advocates changing the current system to a full-time Legislature, where elected senators and representatives have no outside jobs.
Under the principle that work fills the time available, a full-time Legislature would likely waste a lot of time on foolish issues and, unfortunately, pass a lot of unneeded laws or resolutions - the idle-hands-are-the-Devil's-workshop theory.
No, we should stay with a citizen Legislature.
But we should also significantly tighten the body's ethical rules. Let me quote part of the legislators' Code of Official Conduct - which is part of the Legislature's joint rules:
"Members of the Senate and House shall not engage in any employment or other activity which would destroy or impair their independence of judgment.
"Members of the Senate and House shall not exercise any undue influence on any governmental entity.
"Members of the Senate and House shall not engage in any activity which would be an abuse of official position or a violation of trust.
"Members of the Senate and House shall not use their official position to secure privileges for themselves or others."
You tell me how those rules apply in everyday life. They are far too vague.
Rees is accused by State Democratic Chairman Peter Billings Jr. of promoting sexual abstinence programs that Rees' firm, the Institute of Research and Evaluation, has reviewed and recommended. Rees says that's true. He strongly supports sexual abstinence programs in the schools and believes they are the only programs that work. Rees even placed restrictive language in the 1990 School Finance Act declaring that only sexual abstinence programs can be funded by the state.
But his support of such programs doesn't violate the conduct code, he says. Many Republican senators agree with him, including Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy. Rees says his firm gets no money when a school district uses a sexual abstinence program he recommended. Sexual abstinence programs other than those recommended by Rees' firm qualify for state funding. Indeed, the Granite School District adopted a non-Rees sexual abstinence program.
But more than four school districts have adopted the Rees-supported programs, and Rees' firm did encourage those districts to do so.
Billings says Rees, as chief fund raiser for the Institute, has and does solicit big businesses for donations, businesses that have registered lobbyists at the Legislature. Rees says that's true, that his $65,000 annual salary depends largely on his fund-raising abilities and he does solicit firms with registered lobbyists.
Again, Rees says that doesn't violate the code. He adds that he doesn't solicit the lobbyists themselves, only their firms, and that there has never been any give and take. "No favors of me have ever been asked or given because of my business," Rees says.
Legislators are loath to investigate one of their own. In the small 29-member Senate, where one or two powerful GOP senators can kill a bill, there will always be questions of undue influence or inappropriate use of political influence.
Clearer definitions of appropriate and inappropriate legislative behavior are needed. Legislators should put aside their personal privacy in these matters and vote for more public disclosure of their business or other conflicts of interest.