Thursday, August 7, 2008

Legislative Ethics Process - Time to reform now?

I became curious about the ethics process recently, in light of an ethics complaint (and talk of another) that was brought before the Legislative Ethics Committee and then subsequently dropped. I had read that complaints are rare and had only happened three time previously in the last 22 years. In fact, the last time it happened was ten years ago in 1998. I was surprised to read this, considering that the public is always demanding ethics reform. More to the point, in January of this year the Salt Lake Tribune released a poll that asked whether an ethics commission should be formed. Seventy-two percent of residents polled said that they were in favor of such a proposal and the support came from both sides, Republican and Democrat.

What is the process now?

Utah has an ethics committee which is made up of state Legislators who review complaints brought before them by fellow Legislators. The public are not allowed to bring forth complaints. Both the senate and the house have their own respective ethics committees which look at ethical violations of members only after receiving a written complaint by a fellow legislator with the name and address of at least three legislators (or three Senators if the complaint is against a Senator), along with the nature of the alleged violation with supporting documentation attached. The detailed version of what I've just described can be found in Joint Rules of Utah Legislature, specifically JR 6 Chapters 1-5, as well as in House Rules of the Utah Legislature, specifically HR-38 Lobbyist Ethics and Enforcement.

The committees are made up of the chair and three additional members appointed by the President of the Senate for Senate Ethics Committee or the Speaker of the House of Representatives for House Ethics Committee as well as the cochair and three additional members appointed by the Senate/House minority leaders. The bipartisan committee serves a two year term.

What are the problems?

Some problems with the committee include vague rules and no independence or objectivity to address the merits of an ethics complaint. The entire process is tainted by a lack of independence. Fear is also a primary demotivator. Fear of retribution (as was the likely motive for the Mascaro complaint -which ended up being dropped- since he was one of five legislators that filed the complaint against Walker) and fear that they might offend an ally, losing a deciding vote next time they try to get a bill passed. Is it any wonder that to date only 4 complaints have come forth in 22 years?

Why hasn't the process been changed?

There was recently a call for change coming from within in the form of HB 130 and it proposed that a State Ethics Commission be formed. Utah is still only one of eleven states who have not formed an ethics commission. Other states have not only formed an ethics commission but continue to have one or more ethics committees. You can look at a brief comparison of commissions and committees on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Despite agreement from Republicans and Democrats that HB 130 was needed, the bill failed to make it out of the House Rules Committee. The responsibility of changing the process comes from the very group that benefits from not having it change and keeping it the way it is. If the process changes then Legislators may actually be held accountable whereas the process now holds them blameless, so why should they change it? Legislators that were in favor of HB 130 were frustrated when it wasn't even put out there for public comment and noted that it is increased public support that is needed in order for this change to occur. I don't think a single one of us public people are questioning the need for such a bill. We're all in support of change when it comes to ethics in our government and polls such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this post put emphasis on it. What more shall we do, I wonder? Maybe the representatives serving on the 2008 House Rules Committee have some answers?