Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Who Watches the Watchers?

Can we trust the Utah Legislature – more specifically, the GOP majorities in the state House and Senate – to reform their own elections, ethics and campaign operations?


A review of the approximately 250 bill files opened as of this week, in ready for the 2014 Legislature, shows about 30 bills – or nearly 15 percent of the total – have short subject titles that deal in some measure with elections, candidate selections, campaign donations, officeholder ethics and other matters that, in some form or another, would directly affect the 104 part-time legislators themselves.

In short – as the separation of powers in the Utah Constitution requires – the Legislature is in charge of policing itself.

Talk about conflicts of interest.

This, of course, is nothing new.

For more than 30 years I’ve watched Legislature after Legislature struggle with these self-promoting problems.

Each lawmaker’s answer is, understandably, “If the voters don’t like how I act, they can vote me out.”

In theory, that’s correct.

In practice, it doesn’t work that way.

While individual legislative elections vary, on the whole about 90 percent of sitting legislators who run for re-election win.

By far, most legislators leave Capitol Hill via death, resignation or retirement.

The first is not their choice, the latter two are.

Do we have a functioning democracy (OK, government form sticklers, a democratic republic) if once elected voters keep returning such a large percentage of lawmakers?

What these numbers tell me is that legislators’ efforts at reforming their own actions, via ethics, campaigns and such, don’t have any real impact on their political futures.

The 2012 elections, for various reasons, brought forth a large freshman Republican class to the Utah House.

There’re some interesting folks in this group.

And a number of them are asking tough questions about how the Legislature is run, and how you run for the Legislature.

By and large, the people serving in the Legislature are good people, with the best of intentions.

But as a group they have the damnedest time passing reasonable laws that control themselves.

Just one example: Utah is one of the few states that have no campaign contribution limits. None at all.

Any group, usually a PAC or business, or individual can give as much money as they see fit to any state candidate – legislative, governor or attorney general.

Legislators’ reaction to campaign limits is to shout: “More public disclosure.”

They order more and more public filings of such giving – thus arguing that the public and their political opponents can look at who is giving, how much, and then decide whether something fishy is going on and vote accordingly.

But donation disclosure alone clearly has its limits.

We are now in the midst of a public scandal over the actions of current GOP Attorney General John Swallow. And as is the case with most public scandals, this one has at its base the drive by Swallow to raise campaign funds, first for his former boss Mark Shurtleff, and later for himself.

If Swallow is guilty of anything, it is associating himself with some crooks and/or questionable characters– and through those associations asking them for legal contributions to Shurtleff’s and Swallow’s campaigns or charities.

Swallow raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Shurtleff’s good government PAC (don’t you just love those titles), which in turn gave Swallow’s 2012 AG campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Would Swallow and Shurtleff have been so cavalier, or doggedly hungry for big donations from questionable folks, if contributors were limited to $5,000 each, or even $10,000 each?

Every time legislators are asked to impose campaign donation limits, their response is indignation.

“I’m not for sale. How dare you say so?”

Yet more than a few legislators get the lion’s share of their campaign funds not from their constituents, but from special interest PACs, businesses or associations – most of whom want something for their “investments.”

Limit the investments; limit the influence.

It makes common sense.

But not to those who decide for themselves, and their political futures, what is proper reform and what is not.