Three in four Utahns favor reform of ethics laws that affect gift-giving by lobbyists to legislators, conflicts of interest and lawmakers' conversion of campaign funds to personal use, a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll shows.
But lawmakers say such reforms are unlikely to pass anytime soon.
"House Democrats ran reform packages for years. But with the exception of a few innocuous and ineffective changes, nothing passed," said House Minority Leader Brad King, D-Price.
He adds that while he sees insufficient support for reform now, "the sponsors of such past bills will probably wait and see how the bodies look next year after the elections. If members look more receptive, they may try the bills again."
The poll of 412 Utahns by Dan Jones & Associates was conducted Feb. 19-21, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. It found:
• 77 percent of people surveyed favor making laws about lobbyist gifts more restrictive.
• 76 percent favor banning legislators from using campaign funds for personal use.
• 78 percent favor allowing legislators to abstain on votes on which they have conflicts of interest. They now must always vote if present, even if they have conflicts.
The Morning News reported last month that lobbyists gave state legislators and executives nearly $280,000 in gifts from Utah Jazz tickets to college sports tickets, Billy Joel and Jon Bon Jovi concerts, nights at the symphony, golf, travel to Florida and even American Express gift cards.
Legislators took $250,000 of that total. So on average, legislators accepted about $2,400 each in gifts last year. Considering that each legislator is paid $12,330 (plus some mileage) for the 45-day general session, on average gifts equaled about a fifth of their regular pay.
If a lobbyist gives a legislator gifts worth more than $50 in one day, the legislator's name must be disclosed. If the gift is under $50, then the lawmaker's name need not be disclosed, although the gift must be. Of the $250,000 in gifts that lobbyists reported giving to lawmakers last year, less than half, about $100,000 named specific recipients.
Among Utahns surveyed, only 21 percent favored keeping that current law. Another 47 percent favored banning all such gifts; 13 percent said gifts are all right as long as all recipients' names are disclosed, no matter the value of the gift; and 17 percent said more disclosure is needed, and names should be attached to gifts worth $15 or more.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said other states that banned all gifts found it caused unexpected problems, such as not allowing a lawmaker to eat at a dinner where he was the guest speaker. He said he personally would instead favor disclosure of gifts, and allow voters to judge whether gifts accepted are appropriate.
Other concerns have been raised about campaign funds raised by legislators, which come mostly from special interests. Of the $827,000 that legislators raised in such funds last year (a non-election year,) the Morning News reported that about a third was converted to personal uses.
That included paying for new clothes, dry cleaning, car repairs, high-occupancy vehicle lane passes, passports, baby-sitting, travel, Utah Jazz games, wedding or birth gifts, parking tickets, concealed weapons classes, repaying tens of thousands of dollars in earlier personal campaign loans or even paying themselves for regular wages lost during the general session.
Of those surveyed, 76 percent said conversion of campaign funds to personal use should be banned, and 20 percent said it should be permissible only if fully disclosed.
Valentine said he favors banning conversion of campaign money for personal use. He said that is one area in which some reform is possible in coming years. But he said his Republican caucus is currently split on the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said, for example, that he does not consider paying back old campaign loans as a personal use of money, although it was counted as such in Morning News figures. Working out definitions of personal use could be problematic, he said.
Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, ran a bill this year to limit use of campaign accounts to just political spending only or uses related to public offices. But it died in committee after a tie vote.
The Morning News also reported this month that one of every four bills introduced in the current Legislature creates an apparent conflict of interest for sponsors.
That is not too surprising since Utah's 104 lawmakers work only part time in the Legislature, but full time as lawyers, teachers, dentists, Realtors, developers and at other jobs. Many push bills in their areas of expertise. While that can take advantage of their knowledge, it also can benefit their professions or businesses.
Utah law now requires lawmakers to vote whenever they are present, even if they have a conflict of interest on a bill. Bramble abandoned work on a bill to allow legislators to vote "present" if they had conflicts, with approval of a body's top three officers. He said it was difficult to write "bright line" distinctions defining conflicts of interest.Valentine said abstentions could create problems if lawmakers wanted to sidestep difficult votes on volatile issues such as immigration. He said a business owner might claim a conflict because the bill affects immigrant workers. "Others could make the same claim and pretty soon we may not have many people left to vote on the bill," Valentine said.