How do you know whether a Utah legislator is acting for his own personal benefit or pursuing his constituents' desires?
The first is called a conflict of interest, the latter called doing a good job.Utah's is a citizen Legislature. The 104 House and Senate members have other jobs, either in the workplace or home. Many also sponsor or support legislation that affects their private work.
For example, lawyers in the Legislature carry bills their clients want. Farmers and ranchers introduce legislation that could affect farm operation or taxation. School teachers and college professors vote on budgets that mean pay raises for themselves.
A conflict of interest isn't inherently bad. A farmer, for example, may know a state agriculture law is ineffective and onerous. So he introduces a bill to make it work. Indeed, a great advantage to having a citizen legislature is the broad range of real-life experience it brings.
But there are other kinds of conflicts of interest, where a lawmaker tries to line his pocket or make his private work easier, not better for the public, through legislation.
"In our part-time Legislature, conflicts of interest are bound to happen," said House Speaker Nolan Karras, R-Roy. "The question is, where does a conflict start and stop?
Where is the line?"
Karras doesn't have the answer. But at least two lawmakers want to try to define the problem.
Sen. Alarik Myrin, R-Altamont, got to the Senate in part because of a conflict of interest question. He beat a longtime incumbent senator who had become a "government consultant" - a fancy term for a lobbyist - in a race where conflict of interest was an issue.
"When a legislator is taking money to lobby, to introduce this bill or take that stand, well, I think we have a problem," said Myrin.
Myrin will re-introduce a bill this year aimed at disclosing such potential conflicts by making lawmakers who act as lobbyists file with the lieutenant governor's office, as non-lawmaker lobbyists must. "I'd like to go further, to get lawyers up here to say who their clients are. But I don't know if we can (politically) do that."
Rep. Mont Evans, R-Riverton, will attempt that tougher chore. He said he'll re-introduce a comprehensive bill - which failed miserably last year - that will require detailed financial disclosure by legislators and their spouses and require lawmaker-attorneys to disclose their main clients.
"I want to make sure that everyone knows where (legislators) are coming from," said Evans. He's worked with an attorney from the citizen watchdog group Common Cause in drafting his bill.
But there's trouble ahead for both Myrin's and Evans' proposals. "I don't think the people need to know how much money I make or if I've lost money in the stock market," said House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price. "Certainly the lobbyists know who I work for, where I'm coming from, as do most of my constituents. This is a part-time job (lawmaker), as long as I declare any possible conflict of interest on the floor before we vote, I think that covers it."
Lawmakers have been better about declaring such conflicts in recent years. But often they don't, either because of oversight or because they don't want to embarrass themselves or those who support their measures.
House members have to file a written conflict of interest statement. But some don't bother to file it, others just sign the paper and don't list any conflicts, and still others mock the requirement. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, said his conflicts are education (he's a teacher), retirement (a member of the state retirement system), taxation (he pays taxes) and daily life (he's a living human being).
"Conflict of interest is like pornography," said Karras. "No one can define it, but we all know it when we see it. I'm for full disclosure. But what is that? Whether we'll do anything this session to help clarify conflict of interest, I can't say."
Here are some potential conflicts of interest. The list is by no means comprehensive and less than a third of the bills to be considered this session have been introduced:
-Sens. Richard Carling, Lyle Hillyard, Fred Finlinson, Lorin Pace and K.S. Cornaby - all attorneys - often introduce changes in Utah law that could affect their practice. Pace has a bill that would make the state give each lawmaker a copy of the Utah Code, a valuable resource for lawmaker-attorneys. Finlinson is a water attorney and often introduces bills that deal with water.
-Sen. Winn Richards is a physician and introduces bills that deal with the medical profession.
-Sen. Dix McMullin owns a private school and introduces bills that affect education.
-Sen. David Steele is a public education administrator and sponsors bills that affect education as well.
-Sen. Haven Barlow is an insurance broker and agent and sponsors bills on limiting tort and punitive damage awards in court cases as well as insurance law.
House -Evans is a public employee and sponsors legislation affecting public employees.
-Rep. Evan Olsen is a dairyman and has introduced a bill on agricultural cooperative administration.
-Reps. Kim Burningham and Rob Bishop are teachers and have introduced bills that affect education.
-Reps. Douglas Holmes, Scott Holt, Jerrold Jensen, Ted Lewis, Larry Lunt, Ronald Ockey, Frank Pignanelli, Stan Smedley, Don Strong, Jeril Wilson and John Valentine are attorneys and many laws they support could affect their practice.