As volunteers go door-to-door asking neighbors to sign the ethics initiative petition, the response is overwhelmingly positive. Most are eager to see ethical improvement in our Legislature.
On the other hand, some currently-serving legislators and entrenched politicians are opposed. Recently, the Clipper published a column by Todd Weiler which illustrates faulty arguments used to discourage passage of the ethics initiative.
Some politicians, including Weiler, say recently passed legislation on ethics reform is “sweeping.” Hardly! The Salt Lake Tribune called it “baby steps.” The Ogden Standard Examiner described the legislators as “experts at excusing bad ethics” and graded them with a “D.” The Deseret News called legislative actions “modest steps” and promises of ethics reform “unfulfilled.”
For whatever good they did, I applaud our Legislature. But the “baby steps” are insufficient.
For instance, as Weiler says the legislators did pass SB 162; some claim it will limit legislators using campaign funds for personal use (an unfortunately frequently occurring practice). The complete picture, however, is SB 162 does nothing about current legislators and impacts only legislators who are no longer in office. Sitting legislators can continue to spend their campaign funds precisely as they desire.
In another case, many were delighted the Legislature passed HB 345. The public was led to believe legislators could no longer walk out the door and start lobbying. Within weeks after the session, we discovered the loophole: it does not apply to former legislators lobbying for any business not primarily engaged in lobbying. In other words, they can lobby for special interests as long as they don’t join a lobbying firm. The public again had been hoodwinked.
Entrenched politicians may have passed a few bills, but it was primarily cosmetic. We need genuine ethics reform.
Like Weiler, politicians point to an Ethics Committee established by the Legislature and say they have met all year and have made suggestions. Note this committee recently ended their 2009 service with only one recommendation: an ethics commission. Sound good? Perhaps, until we learn this commission can only act by a 4-1 vote. (What happened to majority rule?) Or that the Commission meets in secret? Or that no regular citizens are to be members of the commission? Or most importantly, their recommendation did not address campaign fund use, lobbying restrictions, conflict of interest disclosure, etc. More baby steps.
Weiler claims our proposed ethics initiative commission treats a legislator guilty until proven innocent. Not true. The proposed commission does not determine guilt; it only makes recommendations to the Legislature which must deal with them openly. The commission is not a judicial body.
Weiler complains that the proposed commission would allow three citizens to bring a complaint. And what is the harm? One person can already bring a complaint against any city or county official. One person can bring a complaint against members of the judiciary. One citizen can bring a complaint against you! What is so special about the Legislature only allowing sitting legislators to bring complaints (the current practice)?
Entrenched politicians are using specious and invalid arguments to stop the ethics initiative — arguments like the above that are superficial.
Amazingly, Weiler claims our ethics initiative “removes responsibility for ethics from the people.” Exactly the opposite is true. Currently, only the Legislature itself can bring a charge against its peers; this seldom happens. Legislators are understandably reticent to criticize peers whose vote they will later need.
In the proposed ethics initiative an independent citizens commission will add an impartial eye to the process and bring greater objectivity and ethical conduct to the Legislature.
Some entrenched politicians read the initiative and are nervous. I wonder why?