We were glad to see that a few state lawmakers stepped up last week to take a pledge in favor of ethics reform, even if the exercise had a bit of gimmicky feel to it. The pledge is backed by the interest group Utahns for Public Schools, which came together last year in an effort to defeat school vouchers.
Utahns would be much more gratified to see lawmakers put their pledge on a piece of legislation next January that would be sent to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., for his signature. But the initial signatories last week were primarily Democrats, with only a few Republicans here and there. The minority party generally always has an easier time championing ethics reform, simply because unethical behavior helps the majority party retain power. Unfortunately, this one-sided support also means real reform has little chance of becoming law.
The amazing thing is that the pledge contains nothing radical or jaw-dropping. It consists of three items that, by our estimation, would resonate with reasonable-minded Utahns, and two items urging appropriate sanctions for lawmakers who fail to comply.
The three main parts of the pledge are:
• To require a "full disclosure of any and all gifts and meals" by both lawmakers and the registered lobbyists who provide the items. Under current law, only gifts valued at greater than $50 must be reported, but there are effective, and frequently used, ways to skirt that rule.
• To prohibit lawmakers from using their campaign donations for anything other than actual campaign-related expenses. As it now stands, a legislative candidate can use the money for anything a new widescreen TV for the basement, for instance, or a trip to Wendover.
• To require a defeated or retiring politician to donate leftover campaign funds to charity, a political party or the state school trust land fund. Under current rules, those funds may simply be pocketed.
We grow tired of hearing from indignant lawmakers who say they don't need rules in order to be ethical. The fact is even the most ethical among them are tarred by a system that requires little accountability and allows people to legally enrich themselves off their contributors.
During the first half of this year, several hundred lobbyists reported spending $130,878 in gifts to Utah lawmakers. Those were not given out of the goodness of the lobbyists' hearts. They were meant to buy influence. Perhaps there is a question as to whether the lobbyists succeeded. There is no question, however, as to their intentions.
Every year, the number of lawmakers who understand this serious problem seems to be growing. We applaud and encourage Utahns for Public Schools for publicizing the pledge. Maybe this is the year the issue finally gains traction.