Bell could leave ethical mark | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bell could leave ethical mark

Posted By on August 5, 2009, 5:30 PM

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Soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Greg Bell will bring a high ethical standard to the office that oversees lobbyist and candidate financial disclosures, but his departure from the Senate will mean the loss of an intellectual voice.---

During his years in the Utah Senate, Greg Bell seemed to spend a fair amount of time exploring the political wilderness alone, and he seemed to do so deliberately. He operated, at times, as an independent, running bills that seemed to be opposed by both Republicans and Democrats, possibly because they made sense without having a political agenda.

One of those issues was gay rights, about which my co-worker Brandon Burt has written a separate post. Republicans hated the issue because the Eagle Forum lit up their phones, many Democrats did not want to be saddled with their support of civil unions come election time, and every senator loathed the topic because it meant that almost assuredly Sen. Chris Buttars would speak.

The other bamboo stick Bell would poke in legislative fingernails was ethics, and multiple times he ran bills trying to lower the limits on gifts and require greater disclosure. This irritated his fellow senators, especially when the old-guard Democrats were in charge of the minority side, because they all liked their gifts.

Yet Bill would barrel forward on these ethical reforms, seemingly puzzled by the debate because he was possibly the most ethical legislator. He almost never accepted gifts, and he could not understand why anyone else needed to accept gifts. He also did not seem to care about either the political implications of bringing it up publicly (which highlighted those who really loved their free golf, front row Jazz seats, and regular lunches at the Alta Club) or the political benefit of pushing ethics reform. He just seemed to want legislators to stop taking gifts, because that seemed like the sensible thing to do.

This is how Bell operated, in many ways. He was a patient and intellectual lawmaker who did not consider the politically-expediency of a position.

He studied bills deeply and seldom seemed to rely on what others, especially lobbyists, told him about proposed laws. When he spoke, whether during floor debate, committee hearings, or in the hallway, the intelligence level of the conversation immediately elevated. When others spoke, he listened with interest.

Now, he is moving to an office where so many others have become lost to the political landscape, leaving a void in the Senate that will likely be filled by a Republican who toes the line established by leadership, steps lightly around the Senate chambers, and works with lobbyists over golf games and fancy lunches.

While he cannot sponsor legislation anymore and, considering the 2010 elections are knocking on the door, and will probably stay out of most issues that cast him as a moderate, he still can leave a mark that his predecessor has failed to do.
He can enforce the ethics laws, especially on the side of public disclosure.

Right now, so many loopholes exist in the enforcement of financial disclosures that even if a disclosure report can be found, there is no guarantee it is accurate or that it will stay the same. The implementation of laws by future governor Gary Herbert is one of clarity=enforcement. If any question exists about what a law actually requires, then the administrative rule sides with those making the disclosures, not the public right-to-know.

If Bell wants to truly have an impact on state politics, he should turn that approach on its head. If there is a question about ethics laws, rule in favor of public information. When a lobbyist reports a $49 golf game with a legislator at a $65 course (as they have done, when the gift limit was $50, with the legislator footing the difference), tell them it's not okay. That is only one example of many, but the point in every action would be to force legislators to stand-up and be accountable.

He will not be able to enact any stricter laws, as he wanted to do as a legislator, but he can enforce the current laws which were passed, at least ostensibly, with nearly full disclosure as a goal. In the end, that may actually be a better check on gift-giving than an actual ban, since with every ban there would be a loophole.

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Josh Loftin

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