Thursday, October 1, 2009

Utah Legislators' Anti-Ethics Reform Roadshow

The Ethics Reform Public Hearings are getting a lot of coverage from several local blogs (I've dropped the ball on the hearing in Logan, as I've written nothing about it until now -- but I have video coming soon!). What's most striking about the hearings is not that legislators seem to be attending as many possible, but that they are attending with a consistent message and set of objections that seem organized and pre-planned. From The Standard Ex's Doug Gibson:

Three Top of Utah lawmakers were there. Republicans Brad Dee and Brent Wallis and Democrat Neil Hansen. They all offered comments afterward. Wallis argued that full disclosure of gifts and campaign cash is better than a ban. He said if the voters aren’t satisfied, they’ll vote him out. Wallis also blasted the independent commission saying it would add another layer of bureaucracy. Dee also argued that full disclosure was significant ethics reform. He insisted that legislators are making progress on ethics reform and urged those in attendance to read the entire initiative before signing the petition.

Democrat Hansen wondered why the initiative targeted only the Legislature and not other branches of Utah government. Burningham agreed with Hansen that it should and added, perhaps a bit truculantly, that he hoped the Legislature would pass a law doing that after the initiative passes.

I asked attorney Smith if he was anticipating and preparing for a legal challenge if the initiative qualified for the ballot or passed. I’ve heard of much grumbling from current legislators that the initiative is “unconstitutional.” Smith said they are prepared to successfully defend the initiative if it is challenged.

Both Dee and Wallis are off target when they link election wins as a signal of approval — or disinterest — in legislative ethics. Don’t worry guys, we like you. We’re even proud of the hard work you do on Capitol Hill. But the institutions that comprise our state and national political bodies are as unpopular as they have ever been. The pervasive influence of lobbying, gift-giving, back-slapping, campaign cash-trading, partisan internal ethics committees, post-legislative insider influence jobs, etc., looks exactly like what it is — money-grubbing and a perceived allegiance to the biggest donor, rather than those constituents who don’t have money to burn.

At the hearing in Logan, Sen. Lyle Hillyard and Rep. Ben Ferry were present, and presented not only the same arguments -- while Hillyard offered the additional objection that "any 3 people could file a complaint he would then have to respond to..." -- but in the exact same language. Hillyard even gave me a copy of a flier he'd produced calling the proposed independent commission nothing more than a set of "czars." Ferry spouted one of the most misleading descriptions of how PAC money is spent claiming that voters were better off seeing a $5,000 contribution from a corporation indisclosures than 50 $100 contributions from individual names no one would recognize (yeah, Huh? was my response to that too). I challenged Ferry on what I called "a gross oversimplification of how PAC money works," and he declined response.

I presented the idea to both legislators there that night that this initiative petition drive exists simply because the legislature has failed to do what the public -- if polling is accurate -- wants done on ethics reform. Both Hillyard and Ferry responded that they had made great strides in the last session (former GOP legislator Kim Burningham disagreed, calling their moves "toothless") and repeated that voters could vote them out if they found them unethical. Hillyard did surprise everyone by noting he does support an independent commission, just, apparently, not this one.

It's a rare occasion that I agree with Gibson on anything, but he's right with this one. It's not that we don't like them. It was implied at the hearing that this was little more than a "witch hunt" targeting legislators. It isn't. But as Gibson writes, money-grubbing and perceived allegiance to the biggest donor will not be resolved in an election cycle also dependent on that same money grubbing and allegiance building.

The consistency of the legislators making their way to these hearings, and their fear laden opposition to the simple idea of an independent ethics commission to maintain the credibility of the legislative institution overall is revealing.

They're frightened of losing even this amount of control over the body the make up, and they're launching an all out campaign against the initiative.

Find out where you can sign or volunteer to fight back here.

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