A little more than two years ago, in view of the capital’s iconic capitol dome, several Utahns sat around drinking cocktails and complaining about the Utah Legislature. Not about every single legislator; there are many who are sensible and well-meaning. Just the notorious ones, the ones with well-earned bad reputations.
It was after midnight and the blazing hot December day had finally given way to a balmy, pleasant evening. The palm trees moved hypnotically, sending a faint breeze across the swimming pool and among the lounge chairs we had arrayed near the outdoor bar. (I didn’t say we were in Utah’s capital.) A few Christmas trees winked from the windows of apartment buildings nearby.
Why on Earth in such wonderful circumstances so far from Utah would the conversation settle on what for many of us is just about our least favorite thing? What would possess a group of Utahns, on a tropical island on a December night full of rum and nice people, to arrive at what is probably Utah’s most embarrassing topic?
We were in Havana, the capital of Cuba, and its beautiful capitol, El Capitolio, bears a strong resemblance to Utah’s own capitol building.
Havana’s was built to house the country’s legislature, which it did until the Cuban Revolution changed everything. So since 1959 El Capitolio instead is home to the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.
Utah is facing a little revolution of our own right now, and if Utahns for Ethical Government has its way, our Legislature will become a lot less embarrassing as a result. The group is a nonpartisan coalition committed to legislative ethics reform. This group of Democrats, Independents, Republicans and unaffiliated voters wants to establish a code of conduct for legislators, set standards for contributions to candidates and create an ethics commission -- a kind of nonpartisan citizens’ panel to keep our folks on the Hill out of the back pockets of corporations.
The nearly universally beloved Olene Walker, former Utah governor and former Utah legislator, endorsed Utahns for Ethical Government’s initiative, pointing out Utah is one of only five states with no limits on campaign contributions. Further, we allow corporations to make donations to candidates even though such activity is banned by most other states.
The Utah Legislature put on a big show this past session trying to demonstrate that it can police itself, but everyone knows it can’t. The Trib’s editorial board said recently that even though 74 percent of Utahns approve of a cap on campaign contributions to legislators, we still don’t have one.
Until now, even if a legislator saw a corporation’s semitrailer-truck drive to another legislator’s house and start unloading cash by the pallet-load, he or she would be hard-pressed to do anything about it. Forty-some former Utah legislators have signed on to the ethics petition, and I think it’s because they know it simply can’t be done from within. So this revolution is up to us.
We only have until April 15 to sign the petition to get a bill on the ballot this fall. Sign the petition and you will help stem the flow of loose cash and special interest groups on Utah’s Capitol Hill. You will break the revolving door between the Legislature and corporate lobbyists.
I don’t want to storm our capitol and turn it into the ministry of science, technology and the environment or anything else, although that would be ironic on so many levels, but let’s try to get the Utah Legislature to be a little more accountable to the people of Utah.
¡Que vive, Utahns for Ethical Government (www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org)!
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.