Capitol Oversight 

Legislators policing themselves and choosing their voters bad for state

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In what world is a body given sole legal authority to police itself? For most people and organizations this is a ridiculous notion, but according to the Utah State Constitution, the Legislature has the sole right and responsibility to investigate and enforce its own ethical standards.

That by itself should go a long ways toward explaining why Utah’s legislative politics are a veritable cesspool of corruption and chicanery. Add to that the fact that the Legislature also has the sole authority to draw its own electoral boundaries, carving their own little fiefdoms from the state’s geographic pie, and you have potential corruption and conflict of interest on a scale that would make ancient Roman Senators green with envy.

There are currently two public initiatives underway attempting to change some of this. Fair Boundaries is a group that has gone through all of the legal hoops and is now circulating petitions to get their initiative on the 2010 ballot. The Fair Boundaries Initiative calls for an independent commission to redraw the state’s electoral map following each new census, the idea being that communities shouldn’t be carved into little pieces in an attempt to increase (or decrease) the number of registered voters affiliated with one or the other political party. That seems rather logical, doesn’t it?

Not in Utah. This is a state that has redefined the term gerrymandering, taking it beyond your run-of-the-mill form of “to the winner goes the spoils” politics and elevating it into an art form of corruption.

In both of the previous two census cycles the Utah Republican Party has demonstrated an amazing capacity for self-interest and political power-mongering. Lines have been redrawn to not only create favorable conditions for party candidates, but also to target certain potential threats to the Republican establishment. After the 1990 census it was State Sen. Scott Howell, D-Sandy, that was the targeted victim. In 2000, it was U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-UT. The powers that be will deny any deliberate effort in this regard, but it doesn’t take a genius to look at the maps and see the simple truth.

Utahns for Ethical Government are not quite as far along in their process as Fair Boundaries. They are proposing to create an independent commission with the authority to look into ethical complaints made against members of the legislature. While this seems to be another no-brainer, it is also getting opposition from the state’s Republican Party. Part of the opposition ostensibly stems from the claim that if there was an independent commission, it would encourage people to make bogus claims for political reasons, thereby impacting the ability of the legislators to do their work. Again, it doesn’t take a genius to see through this to the BS underneath.

An independent commission could investigate claims of corruption or ethical impropriety and issue their own ruling, without impacting the operations of the Legislature. How would an independent commission investigating corruption take up more of the Legislature’s time than the Legislature themselves conducting the investigation? Somewhere that math doesn’t add up.

Additionally, under the current system, even if a charge is bogus, when the Legislature rules that one of their darling princes isn’t guilty of anything wrong, there is the perception of a cover up. Truth in the process will only come from transparency, and that comes from an independent investigation – not from an internal peek by members of the majority party.

There will undoubtedly be organized opposition to both of these initiatives, although what remains to be seen is how strong and well-funded that opposition will be. What needs to happen, however, is for the citizens of Utah to finally decide that our elected leaders don’t speak with the word of God, and that their actions are not beyond question. We need to step up and demand that our legislators be held to an acceptable standard of integrity and ethics, and to remove these institutional conflicts of interest that have helped to create and exacerbate the problems of corruption that run so rampantly through the Legislature.

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Bob Henline

Bob Henline is a social and political activist and resident of Tooele County, Utah.

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