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Conflicts of Interest Common in UT Legislature

Utah Rep. Jim Dunnigan (R), who runs an insurance agency when he’s not working part-time as a legislator, sponsored four bills this year concerning the insurance industry, one of which, HB 395, was criticized by a doctor during a hearing for giving too much to insurance companies. Utah Sen. Pete Knudson (R), an orthodontist, introduced SCR 9, a concurrent resolution dealing with “the oral health of the state’s at-risk populations.” The measure’s House sponsor, Rep. Marie Poulson, is married to a faculty member of the Roseman Dental School. And Utah Sen. Karen Mayne (D), whose late husband was president of the Utah AFL-CIO, introduced seven bills and resolutions addressing worker rights and a local worker requirement for public projects.


Those are just a few of the 218 bills and resolutions introduced as of the final week of Utah’s 2017 session - scheduled to end on March 9 - that deal with issues related to the day jobs or personal interests of their sponsors or those lawmakers’ spouses, according to an analysis by the Salt Lake Tribune. That number is over a quarter of the 799 total bills and resolutions introduced during the state’s session.


Despite the high rate of conflicts of interest, Utah is also one of only a few states that bar legislators from abstaining on votes in which they have a conflict.


“Having a rule in place that you can’t abstain makes you accountable, and you better be darn sure you can justify anything you have a conflict on because people know you” in your district, said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund (R).


The state’s legislative leaders also generally see the intersection of personal and public interests in their part-time citizen Legislature as a positive rather than a negative.


House Speaker Greg Hughes (R) said in states with full-time legislatures that have sessions up to three times longer than Utah’s 45 days, only the wealthy, retired or those who work in fields heavily regulated by state government tend to serve, but in Utah’s Legislature there are “so many professions that people are involved in.”


“I will argue that provides for a richer and more robust debate,” he said. “And the perspective lent by those in those fields helps us get to better information and better outcomes....”


As an example, Hughes said, “If you have a school teacher get up and explain the weighted pupil unit or special education dollars, there is a frontline perspective that you are hearing,” he said.


Although Hughes acknowledges the potential for lawmakers to be self-serving, he said they’ve “brought a lot of transparency and light” to the state’s lawmaking process by requiring conflict-of-interest disclosure forms, and members often disclose conflicts verbally during debate or voting as well. He also said lawmakers police one another to make sure bills don’t benefit sponsors more than the fields the bills relate to.


And Okerlund said, “I think the greatest advantage to a citizen legislature is any bills we pass, we then have to go home and live with them.”


“We live with our constituents and hear from them every day,” he said. “If you go to church or go to the market or basketball game, they hold you accountable.” (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, LEXISNEXIS STATE NET)