With the Legislative session now a month behind us, it’s a good time to reflect not just on what happened, but what we want the Legislature to look like in the future.
Utah has long resisted implementing meaningful ethical standards for public officials. As a matter of fact, a few years ago lawmakers decided to make it more difficult to investigate ethical violations. But the state we want to build should have governing bodies filled with ethical public servants who are supported by healthy ethical standards.
Take, for example, Senate President Stuart Adams. This year, he is serving as the chairman of the board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC–a well-funded conservative advocacy group known for churning out model legislation that state legislatures can easily implement. The group works to advance private corporate interests by arranging for big companies to rub shoulders with lawmakers. ALEC is part of “the shadowy web of conservative and libertarian organizations funded by networks like the Koch brothers, working hand in hand with groups like Americans for Prosperity, the State Policy Network, and others.”
While a number of Utah lawmakers are regularly involved with ALEC, Adams’ role in its top leadership position is notable for someone who also holds the top leadership position in the Utah Senate. Even more notable, Adams never mentioned his involvement with ALEC on his mandatory conflict of interest disclosure for 2021.
Utah’s Legislative Rules also require lawmakers with a conflict of interest that wasn’t declared on their financial disclosure form to declare it out loud to the body when discussing a bill that implicates that conflict, which is then recorded into the House or Senate Journal for that day. And according to the Senate Journal, Adams failed to disclose his board chairman position even when the Senate passed a bill restricting the executive branch’s emergency powers that was markedly similar to a model bill that ALEC had adopted just six weeks before.
No matter how you look at it, Utah’s Senate President simultaneously acting as the chair of an outside advocacy group with an aggressive corporate agenda is the spirit of why we have conflict of interest disclosures in the first place. And if conflicts of interest like Adams’ aren’t *technically* required to be disclosed under Utah’s current ethics laws, it’s time for an update.
All Utahns would benefit if the Utah Legislature kept lawmakers from acting in their own personal self-interest, or in favor of well-connected special interest groups. Reforms like increased disclosures, stricter campaign finance laws, a longer legislative session and more legislative staff would help lawmakers do their jobs better and keep important decisions out of the shadows.
Our current system makes it easy for dark-money and special interest groups to take control of Utah politics. Lawmakers can write laws that benefit their own businesses and the corporations that donate to them, which they can hurry through the process without enough debate or consideration. Some lawmakers rely on out-of-state lobbyists and think tanks rather than coming up with good ideas that will help Utahns.
Meanwhile, making the Legislature more accountable to the public good and giving them the support to pass better policy will put the people back where they belong, as the bosses of the Legislature. It’s never too late to correct the unhealthy patterns that exist in Utah politics. As we think about the future of the Utah Legislature, we should think not just about who we’d like to see in office but what kind of system we want them to be working in. A healthy government is an ethical and transparent government, which is something that will benefit all of us.