Utah LG may not let ethics initiative go forward

Utah LG may not let ethics initiative go forward

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell may kill a citizen initiative to create an independent ethics commission and a code of conduct for state lawmakers before the public ever gets a chance to decide if it wants to vote on it.

In a meeting with Utahns for Ethical Government, Bell said Monday he's worried the initiative may be patently unconstitutional because the state constitution grants the Legislature the authority to regulate itself.

The citizen group countered that its proposal is constitutional because the ethics commission would only be an advisory one -- the final decision on legislator discipline would still rest with lawmakers. It pointed to the state constitution, which says the people of the state also have legislative power through the initiative process.

Bell holds the sole authority to release signature packets necessary to get the initiative on the ballot in 2010. To get the initiative on the ballot, 95,000 signatures must be gathered by April from registered voters in 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts.

Utahns for Ethical Government had hoped the packets would be released Monday following the completion of seven public hearings around the state in an effort to have as much time as possible to collect the signatures.

Janet Jenson, an attorney for the group, said she is worried that Bell is caving to pressure from his former GOP legislative colleagues who are opposed to the reform proposals.

State law says that the lieutenant governor can only deny a citizen petition if it is patently unconstitutional; nonsensical; the proposed law could not become law if passed; the law contains more than one subject; the subject of the law is not clearly expressed in the law's title; or if the law proposed by the initiative is similar to a law proposed by an initiative in the past two years.

Bell, a lawyer and former state senator, said he's required to give what in effect is a judicial review of the constitutionality of the initiative.

Alan Smith, another attorney for Utahns for Ethical Government, said Bell is delving much too far into legal nuisances and the length of the nearly hour and a half meeting showed that.

"If it's a debatable proposition, how can it be patently unconstitutional?" he said.

Utahns for Ethical Government contends that Bell is misguided and trying to hamper their signature gathering effort by delaying it with bogus legal arguments.

Bell did not say whether he had made a decision on whether the signature packets would be released, and by extension, the constitutionality of the initiative.

"I have reached no determination -- none, zero," Bell said. "Any representation to the contrary would not be accurate because I have not come to a decision."

Following Monday evening's meeting, Bell said he would likely issue his ruling Tuesday.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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