Thursday, March 19, 2009

Are pigs really flying, or are legislators just lying?

I had high hopes coming into the 2009 Legislative Session. I had hoped that something would be done about ethics reform this year. Finally, not only was the public ready (this year more than ever), but it seemed legislators were ready, too. Several complaints were brought forward just months earlier. These ethics complaints clearly demonstrated that legislators were unable to govern themselves when it came to following through on any action that might be brought against one of their own. Most agreed that they needed to fix it and many vowed to do just that.

In January of 2007, a Deseret News writer suggested that Utah would ban lobbyists' gifts "when pigs fly". When a few bills made it to the House Ethics Committee for consideration the committee members took the opportunity to blame the media for the public's "misperception" of ethics on the hill, claiming that they only know what the media tells them and often the media isn't giving them the entire picture. During discussion of HB 213 Ban on Gifts to Legislators they felt comfortable enough to joke that they had seen pigs flying above the capitol that morning and the Deseret News reporter was even in the room. At the end of the session, Speaker Clark was presented with a pig made out of wood - wings and all! The funny thing is, HB 213 was stalled in rules committee just as we suspected and it FAILED! How could they possibly have taken credit for flying pigs when there is no ban on gifts to Legislators?

Of the 21 ethics reform bills that were filed, only 5 of them were sent to the Governor for his signature. The Utah State Legislature website breaks it all down for us, but let me fill you in on some details.

HB 346 Campaign and Financial Reporting Requirements Amendments

You might find it interesting to know that HB 346, Campaign and Financial Reporting Requirements Amendments, originally required contributions and public service assistance to be reported within 5 days of the day on which they were received. The main purpose of this bill was to increase the speed of reporting requirements, thus making it more difficult for legislators to report donations after they had already been elected. It passed out of the House Ethics Committee with a favorable recommendation and then out of the House with a unanimous vote with original language. On the Senate floor the bill was substituted, meaning that changes were made to it, specifically that the 5 day reporting requirement was changed to 30 days. The bill was substituted yet again (on the very same day, two days before the end of the session) and under suspension of the rules it was considered read for the second and third time and a vote was taken and passed out of the Senate.

Senator Valentine made the first substitute that did the real damage. A second substitute was written up but not made public or voted on, and finally, Senator Bramble added definition language to the bill in the third and final substitute, essentially watering the bill down even more by adding more things that "Contribution" does NOT include.

When a bill undergoes that many changes after it has already passed out of the House it is necessary for the House to either "concur" or agree to the Senate amendments or take another vote. It is common practice for the House to concur on Senate Amendments and for the Senate to likewise concur with House amendments to Senate bills, especially as the session winds down to a close. What is that good for? Laws that haven't been closely scrutinized. Laws that lose their original intent. Only four representatives voted not to concur to the Senate amendments.

HJR 14 Joint Rules Resolution - Ethics Training Course Provisions

HJR 14 is the only piece of legislation that adds rules to ethics procedures and this is what concerned me the most. After all the problems the ethics committee complained about, not having the proper guidelines and guidance when it came to knowing if Greg Hughes was guilty of the complaints brought against him, I would have thought that they would try to fix their process and rules! The best they came up with is to have legislators undergo online training, but what happens the next time fellow legislators file another ethics complaint? Do the new rules requiring legislators to know what is ethical and what isn't ethical help the ethics committee with the problems they had last year?

To add to the debacle, the Senate mucked with this bill just like they did with HB 346. With only one day left in the session they amended the bill to include lobbyists! I might have thought that a great thing if it weren't for the last line of the amended bill. It states:

45a S. (6) A lobbyist who does not complete the training required by this rule is subject to an
45b ethics complaint under Senate or House rule. .S

Notice that it doesn't say "A legislator or lobbyist". I find that somewhat curious. Are legislators not subject to an ethics complaint if they fail to complete the training? Legislators are off the hook according to this new law and apparently nobody noticed.

Instead of rushing amendments through that result in sub-par law they should have been fixing their own ethics process and rules. If you've forgotten how bad it is read Bob Bernick's take after he listened to the taped testimony of Rep. Greg Hughes during the last Ethics Committee investigation. They desperately needed to make themselves some new rules but they ignored that completely. They'll certainly keep ignoring the need for an independent Ethics Commission, too. But don't worry, pigs were flying this year, right? Congratulations to everyone! Congratulations to the rules committees who did their job with flying colors just as in previous years. They held over 75% of the ethics bills that came before them. They seem to think that's their job. Take a look at some of the good bills that they failed to take action on:
And still more that didn't even get as far as the House or Senate Rules Committee:
You can read more about the lucky five here.

So there you have it. The newspapers have apparently succumbed to the pressure to quit "misrepresenting" ethics on the hill. I've only seen a couple of stories that question whether or not ethics reform happened this year. It's quite clear to me that it did not and my next post will illustrate how out-of-control things got up there this year, specifically concerning Bramble's SB 199 which I like to call the anti-PTA bill. Talk about ethics!