State Reps. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, and Mike Noel, R-Kanab, have huge conflicts of interest when it comes to potential laws that could benefit the construction of a nuclear power plant in Utah. That is so clear that it would be difficult to imagine a reasonable observer concluding otherwise, even if both men steadfastly deny it.
Tilton is an owner of Transition Power Development, a private equity group that wants to secure water rights for a nuclear power plant in Utah. Noel is executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, which would supply the water for such a plant. Noel chairs the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Committee, which is considering nuclear power in Utah as well as possible public involvement, and Tilton is the vice chairman.
These conflicts were brought to light by a report earlier this week in this newspaper. Absent that, the public would not likely have known about it. In a state that correctly values the virtues of a part-time citizen Legislature, it is normal to expect that conflicts will arise. The trade-off is that citizens will be represented by people who are not merely close to their constituents but who work and live among them. Utah lawmakers are not full-time politicians who can isolate themselves year-round in Salt Lake City.
But that doesn't lessen the concerns that conflicts of interest can bring to public governance. The Legislature's own rules on this are stunningly lax. They forbid lawmakers from abstaining during votes, regardless of their conflicts. They have to declare conflicts, no more. But even that requirement seems to be difficult for some.
Let's be frank about Tilton and Noel's claims they have no conflicts of interest in this case. Both are trying to split hairs with a dull knife. Tilton says he's not a regulated utility, which makes his involvement in committee hearings on this matter no conflict. But he stands to make a lot of money if a nuclear plant is built. Noel says he won't make any money. His water district job pays him a salary, and that won't change. But landing a contract to provide water for a plant would reflect nicely on his job performance. Conflicts don't always have to be directly financial.
This page leans toward support for nuclear power in Utah. It appears to be the best option for clean energy in an environment threatened by global warming.
Under the rules, Tilton and Noel should declare their conflicts, nothing more. But frankly, those rules need to be tightened considerably.