While their GOP colleagues were meeting behind closed doors a floor above them in the Capitol to talk about ethics and budgets, House Democrats Monday morning reiterated their "top priority call" for ethics reform in next month's Legislature.

Republicans will outnumber Democrats 53-22 in the House when the general session starts Jan. 29. And Monday, incoming House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said that any ethics reform bills that don't have bipartisan support "will be suspect in the eyes of the public."

House Democrats have pushed ethics bills for years, only to see them routinely killed by Republicans either in the House or Senate. Thus, as Republicans are talking tough this year about ethics reform, the minority party wants to remind Utahns that they are leaders, not latecomers, to ethics reform.

While they do plan to "work well" with Republicans on ethics reform, both in changing the law and behind-the-scenes training that could be conducted by the House Ethics Committee, they may push for more than the GOP will propose. At the top of that list is an independent ethics commission to settle complaints against legislators, something which is generally opposed by Republican leaders who would prefer to keep ethics reviews in the hands of other legislators.

House minority whip-elect Jim Gowans, D-Tooele, read a list of what Democrats want in reform: limited personal use of campaign funds; ban lobbyists gifts to lawmakers; one-year moratorium before a legislator can become a paid lobbyist; and an independent ethics commission.

"Democrats are listening to the public's concern" about legislative ethics, said Litvack.

The state's budget crunch also was addressed by the Democrats, who expressed concern about the GOP plan to start budget negotiations with a 15 percent cut to state agencies. While that is not the final budget reduction, Litvack said they prefer the "more balanced approach" taken by Gov. Huntsman Jr., which targeted the cuts more specifically.

Even though Republicans hold two-third majorities in both the House and Senate, Litvack said Democrats will be important players in drafting the new budget, which will take effect July 1.

Utah's poor economy means around $1 billion less next year in tax revenues, and some tough decisions must be made by the Legislature in state spending.

"We must have priorities" in spending, said Litvack, or quite possibly it could cost some Utahns "their lives" — if they don't get needed medical care — and bad budgeting could stop some children from getting "the constitutionally guaranteed quality public education."


E-mail: [email protected]