Is this a conflict of interest? You decide. A legislator starts a business in an industry that, for safety and environmental reasons, is closely regulated by the state. That same legislator is vice chairman of the committee that sets regulations for that industry. And the legislator is pushing for regulations that help the industry and, consequently, his business.
Does that sounds like a conflict of interest? Rep. Aaron Tilton, a Republican from Springville, says he doesn't think so. Of course, he's the legislator in question here. Tilton and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, are vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Standing Committee. Those positions give them jurisdiction over the rules that govern the energy industry in Utah. In fact, Tilton has been a strong advocate of bringing a nuclear power plant to Utah.
At the same time, Tilton is owner of Transition Power, a private company that is seeking to obtain a license to build a nuclear power plant in Utah, and has negotiated with Kane County Water Conservancy District to obtain water rights for such a plant. Transition Power won't actually build the plant. Instead, it will sell the license to another company that will build the reactor and operate the plant. Transition Power will pocket the profit from selling the license.
Tilton claims that there is no conflict of interest. Yet he was slow to reveal that he was the owner of a company attempting to bring a nuclear power plant to Utah. His company formed in February. He didn't disclose his own role as CEO of the company until October. Why would he do that if he really thought there was no conflict of interest? Tilton's committee held hearings in July and September on regulations on building nuclear power plants in Utah. Throughout these hearings, Tilton never mentioned that he had a financial interest in the outcome of the very regulatory process he was presiding over.
No conflict of interest? How can Rep. Tilton make such a statement with a straight face? He must have a low opinion of his constituents and the people of Utah generally.
The fact that a state legislator could help his own business (pretty much exclusively) through his position and not consider it a conflict of interest is strong evidence the ethics laws for the Utah Legislature are far too lax.
Undoubtedly, members of a part-time Legislature will have some conflicts of interest. But in addition to full disclosure of the conflict when it occurs, they should be required not to vote on an issue where there is a specific conflict, not required to vote. There should be stiff penalties for not disclosing conflicts of interest. And legislators should not be allowed to vote in committees on legislation that directly benefits them financially.
Richard Davis and Larry Brown are chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Utah County Democratic Party.