Congratulations are in order this week for Utah legislators.
They've taken the initiative and agreed to a request by their leaders to more fully disclose any conflicts of interest.This is no small victory. For at least four years, bills have been introduced in each general session requiring detailed reporting of the part-time lawmakers' business dealings.
Each year the bills failed. For three straight years, the Senate refused to even debate the measures.
But last session, under the guidance of veteran Sen. Haven Barlow, R-Layton, the Senate slowly turned. While House members were pushing legislative campaign reform and lobbyist disclosure, Barlow and other senators were talking about a conflict of interest rule change.
They didn't want to place the measure into law. They believe - like the U.S. Congress believes - that members' ethics and conflicts should be determined by the body alone, not by some outside prosecutor who may have his own political agenda. The Senate passed the Barlow amendment, 23-0. The House, swamped with other items in the final day of the session, didn't take it up.
Barlow's proposed joint rule says:
- No legislator can be a paid lobbyist or consultant whose duties include furthering or opposing legislation.
- Legislators who believe the action they are debating and voting upon may be a conflict of interest should declare the conflict orally before voting and explain the conflict.
- Legislators may file a written statement of conflict of interest with the Senate or House - depending in which body they reside. The statement will list any business interest worth $10,000 or more.
- Legislators must disclose if they are paid during the session by anyone other than their principal employer.
The last requirement stems from concerns of bygone days. In years past, some legislators, mostly Democrats, who belonged to a labor union had their legislative pay augmented by the union during the general session. In effect, the union paid the difference between the legislator's regular salary, not paid by the employer during the session, and the lawmaker's paltry, part-time legislative pay. Some Republicans found that practice offensive, since the legislator was in effect on the union payroll. Legislative insiders believe no current legislator indulges in the practice. But Republicans want it disclosed if they do.
The Barlow rule change is a positive step. As House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy, said this week, the public doesn't see a difference between a perceived conflict of interest and an actual conflict.
If Sen. Stephen Rees, R-West Valley, had filled out a detailed conflict of interest statement when he started working as a chief fund-raiser for a business that promotes teenage sexual abstinence to prevent pregnancy (no such filing was required), he likely wouldn't be in the unpleasant position he finds himself today - accused by the state Democratic Party of ethical wrongdoing.
Barlow's rule change doesn't answer all the questions, of course. Some fine- tuning must take place. The difficult problem faced by attorney/consultant-legislators remains.
The Deseret News last week sent out a questionnaire to each of the 104 legislators asking them to list their businesses, any state contracts they may have and whether they routinely do business with lobbyists registered with the state.
Several attorney/legislators told me they won't list their clients, partly because that's unfair to the client, partly because they don't know if the client is a registered lobbyist or may become a registered lobbyist in the future.
Said one attorney/senator: "You (the press) are really making me paranoid."
And paranoia is rampant among Utah's lawmakers. In answering questions earlier this week on the Barlow rule change, Moody asked, "What are you (the press) going to expect of us next? Will you want our income tax returns?"
This is not a fight between the press and the Legislature, although some lawmakers see it as such. Rather, it's a question of public trust in the Legislature. Lawmakers serve themselves and their institution best by fully disclosing conflicts of interest and should be praised for the actions they're taking.