Initiative filed to create Utah ethics commission

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Government of, for and by the people; a new group says that's what they're looking to restore with a statewide ballot initiative. They aim to gather roughly 100,000 signatures to put the issue of legislative ethics on the ballot.

Last fall, an ethics commission made up entirely of Utah lawmakers cleared but reprimanded Draper Republican Greg Hughes over a series of allegations, including one that he offered another lawmaker $50,000 in campaign money to change a vote.

Months later, lawmakers passed a few reforms. But it wasn't enough for a new group called Utahns for Ethical Government.

"This is not the effort of one or two malcontents. It is a groundswell rising up from frustrations of Utah citizens," said former Republican lawmaker Kim Burningham.

Some members of the group were involved in the Hughes fight and the effort to defeat school vouchers; others include members of the AARP, a former University of Utah president and a woman who was Clerk of the House for 30 years. She says things have changed big time since the ‘70s.

"It's government by special interest legislators," said former clerk Carole Peterson. "It's time government goes back to the people and we be part of it."

The initiative would establish a non-partisan ethics commission. It would ban gifts, ban lawmakers serving as lobbyists, and ban them from spending campaign money on personal expenses.

It would also set new limits on campaign contributions--$2,500 per individual, and $5,000 per political action committee--and ban contributions from corporations, unions and nonprofits.

Utah routinely earns dismal grades for ethics reform. The new rules would be among the nation's toughest, limiting the influence of money in politics.

"To me, it's been a long time coming. It's needed to be done 15 years ago. Behind the scenes is vicious," Peterson said.

Typically, Utah lawmakers argue that they and their colleagues are very ethical, that the state is considered among the best managed and that new rules are unnecessary. But this initiative effort, combined with another on redistricting, will test that view and put the issue on the map in the 2010 election.

For the initiative to get on the ballot, 95,000 signatures must be gathered by April from registered voters in 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts. The group has enlisted 300 people so far, including 19 former lawmakers from both parties, and former governor Olene Walker.

If the initiative becomes law, lawmakers would still have the final say on disciplinary matters. However, they would have to publicly vote on the ethics commission's recommendations in each case.


Story compiled with contributions from John Daley and The Associated Press

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