Friday, February 13, 2009

The Ethics Land Mine

[Legislature] Utah's first standing Ethics Committee met today amid modest fanfare to talk about their new task of cleaning house. The historic moment was ushered in by a pair of proposed bills both by Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace. The first, H.B. 345 is meant to instate a cooling off period between when legislators can become lobbyists after leaving public office.

That's the idea at least.

The bill as it turns out would only instate a one year cooling off period for legislators who want to go to work for a lobbying firm--that is a firm that only does lobbying. If however a legislator leaves office and gets hired by, say, Zion's bank and his only job is to go and do lobbying at the legislature for Zions, then he or she doesn't have to worry about the whole cooling off period. This because "there are a myriad of businesses in Utah with a myriad of problems" explained Dee.

Most committee members quickly recognized this loophole but still conceded the merits of the bill.

"There's no perfect solution and no perfect language in dealing with ethics," said committee member, Rep. Kevin Garn R-Layton. "We'll always have that problem."

The next item was H.B 346 which would do some tinkering with candidate's campaign disclosure filings. One change would keep legislators busy by requiring them to report all contributions they receive within five business days of receiving them instead of one of the five annual filing deadlines.

"The public would like to know now, and not at the next reporting period," Dee said of the language.

Hooray transparency!

But then it was explained how the bill would also make it so that candidates would no longer need to disclose the monetary value of in-kind campaign contributions. These donations refer to services a donor provides a candidate such as website design, mailers, billboards etc... Dee explained the candidate should not be burdened with appraising the values of the services. So the language would require only that a candidate list that they had received an in-kind donation and give a brief description of what it was.

The contributor would still have to list the monetary value of their donation but that would be only listed on their separate report.

Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray also on the committee worried special interests might take advantage of that loophole. "I'm concerned with the amount of interest groups that may just end up funding an entire campaign, free of charge."

Regardless, both bills passed out the committee unanimously, with most committee members sounding off on progress being made. Dee for one picked up on the various committee members latching on to the expression that "the ball has been moved" and sounded off his presentation with this thought:

"We haven't scored a touchdown yet, but we have got a couple of first downs," he said.

That metaphor was a popular one during the meeting, but I think one offered by Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, really summed up the challenges of doing ethics legislation. In regards to H.B. 364's letting candidates get off the hook for not listing the monetary value of in-kind donations, Last said the measure would keep legislators from stepping on ethics "landmines".

"We want the public to know what we're doing," Last said. "But we don't want to place landmines for us [legislators] to have to navigate around."

(Eric S. Peterson)


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