A group of legislators moderate Republicans and Democrats would like to see lawmakers do something about their own ethics, specifically personal use of campaign funds and taking of lobbyists' gifts.
Two bill files have already been opened for the 2009 Legislature one by Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, and one by Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay.
"I want transparency, both in campaign spending and gift-taking," said Mascaro, who added he didn't run so-called ethics reform bills the past two years after "certain members of (House GOP) leadership asked me not to."
But after the House moved "back to the same old mind-set where Republican leaders took over the final weeks of the (2008) Legislature and just did what they wanted" with little concern for other GOP members of the 55-person House Republican caucus, "I decided to go ahead this year" with ethics reform, Mascaro said.
Utah has some of the most liberal campaign, conflict-of-interest and lobbyist gift-giving laws in the United States. Legislators and candidates can take any amount of money from anyone, can spend their campaign accounts anyway they wish even giving themselves cash can vote on any bill, even those with clear conflicts of interest, and can take any "intangible" gift from a lobbyist.
Any "intangible" gift like a Jazz ticket valued at over $50 in one 24-hour period must now be reported by the lobbyist with the name of the legislator who took it.
But over time lobbyists, who now report their own gift-giving, have found creative ways around the by-name legislative reporting. Each year the 104 lawmakers take around $200,000 worth of gifts from lobbyists, reports show. But less than 20 percent of that money comes with a legislator's name attached.
Mascaro said he and Jones may work together on their ethics ideas like they did in the early 2000s when for several legislatures in a row they unsuccessfully ran the Jones-Mascaro income tax reform bills.
Mascaro said he wants legislators themselves to keep track of, and report publicly, the gifts they take from lobbyists. No gifts would be outlawed. But every gift valued at more than $20 would be reported by each legislator, with the lobbyist's name attached.
"We are the ones elected by the people, not the lobbyists. And we should be the ones held accountable for taking lobbyists' gifts, not the lobbyists," said Mascaro. Lobbyists would still do their own reporting, so each entities' reports would act as a check and balance for accuracy, he added.
Mascaro also wants to restrict the use of campaign funds "only for actual expenses associated with a campaign's cost."
Jones said that modern technology could allow a legislator to put online a gift taken from a lobbyist immediately without having to wait for a quarterly report. And she believes that gifts given to legislators because they hold office, but not given by a registered lobbyist, should also be reported.
For example, for two decades the newly picked GOP legislative leaders every two years have gone on a free trip to Taiwan paid for by the Taiwanese government. Those trips have never been included in any formal lobbyist report because they were not given to the leading legislators by a registered lobbyist. A former Senate president once went on a two-week fishing trip to Alaska paid for by a large oil company. But that oil company didn't lobby the Utah Legislature, so the trip was never reported.
A review of the Legislature's master study list for 2008 shows that a number of the moderate House Republicans, who have joined together in what they call the Reagan Caucus, all asked that ethics/campaign spending/gift issues be studied this interim which falls between each January/February 45-day general session.
The House Republicans who specifically asked for some ethics study this summer and fall include: Reps. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, a former House speaker; Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful; Mascaro; Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville; and Jim Bird, R-West Jordan.
So far, no interim committee has scheduled any debate on ethics reform. And the Legislative Process Committee, which in the past has undertaken study of such issues, has not even met this year and may not, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the co-chairman of the Legislative Process Committee. Hillyard wondered aloud if it was a good use of lawmakers' time to study issues that historically have not passed the Legislature.
Toward the end of the 2008 Legislature, several members of the House Reagan Caucus told the Deseret News that the caucus (which has between 15 and 20 members) was considering taking a position of moving some ethics legislation. But in the end, the moderate Republicans didn't act.
There are only 17 House Democrats so almost all their votes would have been needed to reach a House majority of 38 votes. But a few of those Democrats are considered anti-ethics reform, having previously voted against tightening of lobbyist gift regulations or restricting legislators' personal use of campaign funds.
Of course both the moderate Republicans' and conservative Democrats' numbers could change in November's elections as could the makeup of conservative Republicans in both the House and Senate who traditionally oppose ethics reforms.
In the 2008 Legislature, Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, introduced a bill that would have barred legislators from giving their campaign funds to themselves. Last year, one House member gave himself $6,000 out of his campaign account, saying he had actually lost more than that in personal income because of his legislative service.
A few incumbent legislators have tens of thousands of dollars in their campaign accounts a few nearly $100,000 which they could give to themselves either before or after they leave office.
But Bell's fellow GOP senators killed that bill in a Senate committee vote the usual fate for ethics reform in the 29-member Senate.
Mascaro said he has also formed an "advisory committee" of about 20 Republican Party delegates in his House District 47, and through that committee he will "make public" backroom dealings of House and Senate committee chairmen who routinely hold (and thus kill) each general session "bills that my constituents, and others' constituents, want passed."
"There are some good things that are happening up there (in the Legislature). Not all of us are idiots," said Mascaro. But when good bills are held and killed in backroom deals, it often leads voters to think otherwise, Mascaro added."I and other (legislators) are tired of it. Our constituents are tired of it. They deserve to have important policy issues heard but (some) are not getting heard," said Mascaro. In the 2009 Legislature, the public will know who is holding up legislation and why, he added.
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