Last year the Legislature passed four bills that addressed a number of issues including: restrictions on campaign accounts of legislators leaving office, greater disclosure of gifts and meals received, a one-year restriction on former legislators registering as lobbyists, and a requirement that campaign donations be reported on a quicker timeline.
While these changes were significant, they were just the beginning of a year-long effort by the Legislature to review and update our ethics laws. Legislators are well aware that the public perception of lax meals, gifts and campaign donation laws leave much to be desired. In order to address this deficit of public trust, the Legislature created a new Ethics Interim Committee that spent the 2009 interim looking into our current political system and prosing further reforms. This was a unique committee because it had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. It was my privilege to serve on the committee this past year. The committee also featured two chairs and two co-chairs so that the parties in each chamber had leadership representation.
The committee has recommended several bills that the House of Representatives debated this week. The package of bills passed overwhelmingly and now awaits action by the state senate. One of the recommendations, which can be found in HJR 14 Joint Rules Resolution on Financial Disclosures and HB 270 Financial Disclosure and Conflict of Interest Amendments, was to revamp the conflict of interest forms that all legislators are required to complete and that are posted online. These forms will now require much more detailed information that goes beyond a legislator's full-time employment and into other areas like boards and organizations with which a legislator might be involved. Information on the employment of a Legislator's spouse would also be captured on the form. All state officers (i.e. governor, members of the State School Board, etc.) will now file these forms as well.
The process by which the Legislature investigates ethics complaints has also been retooled. HJR15 Joint Resolution on Legislative Ethics Commission provides for an independent commission made up of three retired judges and two former legislators (one from each party) that will make referrals to either the House or Senate on whether an ethics violation has occurred and any recommendations the commission may have on actions the House or Senate ought to consider.
There has been some confusion in the public and the media about this process and I would like to set the record straight. This commission made up of retired judges and former legislators will meet to hear allegations of misconduct. Since they are investigating allegations, this level of proceeding will be kept private and closed to the public. If the allegations are deemed to have merit, the commission will make a recommendation to the Ethics Committee in either the House or Senate. Everyone deserved to have to have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the commission process will preserve the good name and dignity of innocents while ensuring bad actors are caught and face the consequences.
HB 124, Campaign Funds Expenditure Restrictions, addresses in great depth how legislators, state office holders, and candidates may use their campaign accounts. Funds in campaign accounts are to be used for political campaign activities or for expenditures made while executing the duties of public office. "Off-duty" uses of the account will not be allowed.
The bill gives the lieutenant governor's office the authority to examine account records and the ability to impose a penalty if a violation has occurred.
Finally, the rules governing gift and meals will also be updated under HB 267 Lobbyist Disclosure and Regulation Act Amendments. Gifts over $10 will be banned and any meal over $10 must be disclosed by name. Some might ask why gifts and meals aren't banned outright, given the public perception of gifts and meals given to legislators. These levels are being set to allow various groups, such as schoolchildren or visiting delegations of government or business leaders, to present a legislator with a pen or school shirt of nominal value.
It is my hope that these bills will quickly pass the Senate and be awaiting the governor's signature next week. Restoring the public's trust in the Legislature is a top priority for me and I am eager to change the perception of how the Legislature does the people's business.
Rep. Brad Dee is the majority whip in the Utah State House of Representatives. He represents House District 11, which covers portions of Davis and Weber counties.