Herbert sounds off on controversial issues during monthly press conference

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In his monthly news conference with KUED Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert let his opinions be known on several controversial issues. The first, being an ethics initiative currently circulating the state.

Ethics initiative

The ethics initiative is an effort to impose new ethical standards on legislators. The governor said he agrees with the higher standards for lawmakers--the driving force behind the initiative--but he says this particular initiative has significant flaws. It calls for an ethics commission that would have the power to investigate ethical complaints against legislators. Lawmakers, themselves, would approve or reject the commission's recommendation.

Currently, supporters are gathering signatures, hoping to put the matter before voters next year. But Herbert said he is worried the initiative doesn't provide the proper due process for those accused of wrongdoing.

"I would rather have a good law on the books that has good ethic reform than have a bad law that has constitutional challenges," Herbert said. I think most attorneys that are reviewing this right now, that don't have an axe to grind, are saying the petition itself, as it becomes law, would present some significant issues for us as a state."

But Herbert is still calling on lawmakers to pass additional reforms themselves in the next session. Several ethics-related bills passed earlier this year.

Attorney David Irvine, with Utahns for Ethical Government, responded to the governor by saying Herbert misunderstands the initiative. He defended the due process the initiative calls for and said the public has been supportive--it's politicians who don't like it. Irvine also said Herbert has rejected attempts to meet about the issue.

Lawmakers vigorously oppose the initiative, but Utahns for Ethical Government continues to gather signatures, saying real reform is what the public wants.

Budget shortfall

Meanwhile, money is on the minds of both the governor and lawmakers as they stare at an $850 million shortfall this year. Despite that, Herbert said he will not propose a tax increase in his next budget

The governor said both trimming the budget--with a scalpel--and the rainy day fund will keep tax increases off the table this year, but it's going to be close. He said he plans to meet with every department to surgically cut where necessary.

What Herbert doesn't like is the idea of a tax increase just as the economy is on the verge of recovery.

"The worst thing we can do would be to have some kind of wet blanket of tax increases that would snuff out that flame just as it's trying to get some rhythm and get going again. So again, I will resist tax increases," Herbert said.

School trust lands administrative bonuses

Given the tough times, the governor also joined the outrage from lawmakers at bonuses given to top managers of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

The independent state agency manages 3.4 million acres of trust lands for the financial benefit of Utah public schools. On Wednesday, lawmakers learned that six people received the bonuses worth $426,000. The bonuses were doubled this year because of a legislative mandate prohibiting bonuses next year.

Herbert said the people receiving the bonuses have done good work for the state, but he doesn't like the way this happened.

"I understand the argument and I see the success," Herbert said. "This was not a good time and clearly went to the Legislature's wishes, which I'm disappointed in."

A lot of people are watching all aspects of the state budget right now, and that scrutiny will continue.

E-mail: rpiatt@ksl.com

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