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Op-ed: Utah lawmakers struggle with conflicts of interest

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

Because Utah has a part-time Legislature, our lawmakers also have day jobs: as physicians, as attorneys, as real-estate developers. These jobs can give our elected representatives knowledge and insight into the bills they consider, but they also carry the potential for conflicts of interest.

If, for example, a legislator who is also a physician votes to mandate motorcycle helmets until age 21, he is using specialized knowledge of head trauma to inform his decision. If he were also to own a company that manufactured helmets, his vote would represent a conflict of interest.

These are two very different situations, and conflating them — as was done in the March 6 Salt Lake Tribune article “1 of every 4 bills in Legislature poses potential conflict-of-interest for sponsor” — represents a dangerous lapse in logic that muddies a clear tenet of our representative government.

When an elected official gains personal benefit from his support of a bill, that’s a conflict of interest. He has put his own interests above those of the people he serves. This is destructive to the democratic process. Equating this, as the Tribune story did, to a Highway Patrol officer’s support of vehicle inspections — a stance informed by seeing crashes caused by uninspected vehicles and entailing no personal gain — simply causes confusion about what a conflict of interest actually entails.

It is not confusing. It’s about government business for personal gain. That was the case last year, when Alliance for a Better Utah raised the alarm that a coal-company employee, who was also a member of the Permanent Community Impact Board, may have voted to fund a $53 million coal-export terminal in Oakland, Calif. It was also the case last year when Alliance for a Better Utah called out lawmakers whose votes to relocate the Utah State Prison could benefit their own real-estate interests.

Utah and Oregon are the only two states in the nation that require legislators to cast votes on bills with which they have a conflict of interest. Abstaining is not an option, which means lawmakers are essentially forbidden to police themselves on this issue.

In the Utah Legislature, bills were put forward to remedy this situation not once, not twice, but three times in recent years. In 2013, the House Rules Resolution on Voting Procedures would have allowed “a Representative who is present within the House chamber when a vote is taken to abstain from voting.” That bill made it as far as the House Rules Committee, which referred it for interim study. The same bill made it back to the same committee in 2014, but was not considered because of a procedural technicality. A similar fate befell a similar bill in 2015.

“This deserves to be heard,” Rep. Jim Nielson, sponsor of the 2013 and 2014 bills, said at the time. “I don’t think our current system is what our voters ask for.”

But it’s still what the voters get.

So, legislators are left to cast their votes as required, even when a conflict makes them wish they could abstain. Citizens are left to wonder whose interests those votes were meant to serve. And transparency is left out of the equation entirely, making legislators less accountable to the people they serve. Transparency and accountability are cornerstones of our representative government. They are supported by citizens’ groups like Alliance for a Better Utah, and they depend on clear policies for lawmakers and clear expectations from citizens.

Doris Schmidt recently moved to Utah after retiring from a long career as a professor of journalism at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, and serves as a volunteer with Alliance for a Better Utah.

Read Trib OpEd here.

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