There has been much hullabaloo concerning ethics reform in this legislative session. Indeed, it is quite obvious that the Utahns for Ethical Government have gotten under the skin of many-a-legislator. In an attempt to quell some of this, none other than the Speaker of the House, Representative Dave Clark (R – Santa Clara – District 74), has proposed HJR 15 - Joint Resolution on Legislative Ethics Commission.
To be blunt, this is a scary Joint Resolution. The resolution, if it were to pass and be approved by the people, would change our state constitution to create an ethics commission that would independently review any complaints made against legislators to see if the complaint merits “further consideration.”
On the surface, this sounds like a good first step towards ethics reform and, indeed, if this were a bill rather than a joint resolution, I would be in favor of the bill. But we need to remember a few things about constitutional amendments: 1) they are much more difficult to pass, and 2) they are much more difficult to change if things are not going well.
So legislators could say that they passed a good ethics bill and then not have to say anything when the truth comes about about why the bill is bad. Furthermore, it is rare for the Speaker of the House to propose a bill – I feel that he was specifically chosen because of his power to push legislation through the chamber, not so much because he believes in the legislation.
Why is it bad you say? Well the bill does nothing to actually prosecute ethics violations, and it allows the legislature to define what a violation is. In other words, the legislature could pass extremely lax definitions of ethics violations and then not do anything to their fellow members if and when the commission actually rules that a violation took place.
This is a purely political bill that will give uninformed voters feel goods while making the problem go from bad to worse. It will do little to actually fix the problem, but will look good on a campaign flier.