Reluctant state legislators won't have to hide in the restroom or behind the kitchen door if a state law requiring them to vote is modified by the 2008 Legislature, now just six weeks away.
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, will introduce several concurrent bills aimed at setting up through law and internal Senate and House rules a system of checks and balances that will allow a legislator to declare a conflict of interest and get out of voting on a measure embodying that conflict.
In addition, Bramble wants to better define what a conflict of interest is not an easy matter.
As it now stands, each of the 104 part-time lawmakers must, by law, vote on every bill that comes before them on their chamber floors if they are present in the Capitol.
That requirement has led, over the years, to some strange legislative behavior.
Before the House was remodeled in the 1990s, there was a single women's room just off the House Chamber floor, and a female lawmaker once locked herself in, refusing to come out for a "call of the House" a mandatory vote for all members. House staff finally found a key to the bathroom, opened the door, and the lawmaker was required to cast a vote.
In another instance, a House member was found by the sergeant of arms hiding behind the House's kitchen door, trying to avoid a vote.
Bramble, after weeks of study, including talking with leaders in other state legislatures, says he believes he's found a workable solution that won't let timid legislators avoid important votes, but will allow a legislator to be present but not voting on issues involving true conflicts of interest.
"There are a lot of tough votes that some legislators may want to pass on," said Bramble. A good example is HB148, the main private school voucher bill that passed by one vote in the House last session and subsequently was overturned by voters last month.
"I think a number of Salt Lake County legislators, including some Republicans," would have liked to be present but not voting on that one, said Bramble.
His idea likely wouldn't allow that, however.
Bramble wants to let any legislator appeal to the three main leaders of his body, asking that he not have to vote on a bill on which he believes he has a conflict of interest. In the Senate, the Senate president, majority leader and minority leader would decide if the senator had to vote or could recuse himself. If the conflicted senator didn't like their decision, he could appeal to the whole Senate, which by majority vote would decide if he could recuse himself.
If given a recusal, even if there was a call of the house a mandatory vote by all senators that particular senator would not have to vote, explained Bramble. The same would apply in the House of Representatives.
In addition, Bramble doesn't want to leave it up to just individual members to decide conflicts for themselves.
"Maybe I wouldn't think that I had a conflict, but another (senator) did? Any member could appeal the same way" through the three leaders and to the whole body "if they felt I shouldn't vote on a (conflicted) bill."
The conflicted senator would then have to convince his leaders he didn't have a conflict. If one of the leaders themselves was involved in a conflict, he would step aside and the next highest ranking member of leadership would take his place on the three-person panel, explained Bramble.
In private conversations, some have worried that the majority Republicans could, through this process, stop Democrats from voting on some controversial bills, he said. But Bramble believes that in reality that wouldn't happen, as citizens and the media would see such abuse and report it.
Bramble said a recent brouhaha in the House, in which two members were accused of conflicts of interests over the possible siting of a nuclear power plant in Utah, wasn't the impetus for his conflict of interest bill.
"Conflicts of interest have been a topic since I've been up here seven years and long before that as well," Bramble said.
The problems of Reps. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, who had conflicts in the nuclear power plant issue, may have highlighted the problem, he added, "but they weren't the genesis."
Noel and Tilton either chair or are members of House committees that deal directly with nuclear energy. Tilton is an energy consultant who is looking into siting a nuclear power plant in Utah, while Noel heads a local water company that would sell the proposed plant $1 million of water each year.
This past summer, neither man publicly declared a conflict of interest during hearings on nuclear power until after their involvement was publicized by the media, each saying they didn't believe their private jobs were financial conflicts.
Both still contend they don't have a conflict of interest as defined by state law and legislative rule.
Bramble believes the financial conflict threshold, $10,000, is appropriate. And all legislators would still have to file a public conflict of interest form and, when appropriate, verbally declare a conflict before a vote.
But current law goes on to say that legislators must claim conflicts if they are board members or otherwise involved in issues that pose a conflict. "What does all that mean?" he asks.
Bramble said he will better try to define a situation in which an individual legislator, faced with a vote on a conflicted bill, could declare a conflict and not have to vote.
And he wants to allow all legislators to stay in committee hearings but just decline to vote."As it now stands, you can just get up and leave a committee meeting before the vote." Unlike votes on the chamber floors, "the chair can't force you to stay and vote. But you should be able to stay in the committee, declare a conflict, and be present but not voting" not now an option.
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