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The fruits of single-party government in Utah

Published October 9, 2010 12:00 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For 25 years, Utah has been in the vise-like grip of one political party: ours. If that were characteristic of the Utah-BYU football rivalry, it would be one thing, but whatever your party affiliation, if you care about good government, the mostly noncompetitive nature of Utah politics should be alarming.

No political party has a monopoly on virtue, and in theory, parties should be a check and balance on each other. But 25 years of veto-proof legislative majorities and the gerrymandered stranglehold that comes with them mean that voters sleepwalk through elections at their peril.

The I-15 bid debacle should be a wake-up call. To his credit, Gov. Gary Herbert asked the state auditor for a thorough audit of the Department of Transportation. But when queried by the Deseret News, the state auditor, another good Republican, said, "Am I going to look at the campaign relationship? No. We don't audit political accusations, political claims, political problems."

The few facts that are publicly known show a problematic sequence of discussions in the governor's office at the Capitol between a candidate and contractors, thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, lucrative contract awards, a $13 million secret payoff to a losing bidder, and a bid process that was altered after the bidding had closed in order to give the winning edge to the big contributor. When that state agency head says, "I just never really anticipated this sort of attention to our little department," that obliviousness suggests incompetence; and in any other environment it would be a résumé-producing event.

Let's be clear. While these facts came to light in a political campaign, that doesn't change their fundamental nature. The heart of the issue is whether campaign money improperly influenced the contracting process and whether campaign fundraising is being run out of public facilities. These aren't partisan questions: They're honest government questions, and if it isn't the state auditor's job to follow these issues, whose is it?

Utahns for Ethical Government has asked Herbert if this episode has prompted some recommendations that would boost our D-minus in ethics laws to an A. So far, he's offered none. We've asked if he would agree to a mutual, voluntary limit on campaign contributions. He has responded that he believes contribution limitations are a violation of free speech. Curious. The U.S. Supreme Court has long upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits, as recently as the Citizens United case.

We'll continue to ask these questions, and lest this seem a gotcha game, here are some recommended answers. First, it's time to stop pretending that there is no relationship between big campaign contributions and the expectation of big favors, and it's time to stop pretending that contribution limits undermine free speech. They're a legitimate protection against election corruption, as courts have held over and over. The two gubernatorial candidates should be examples of ethical leadership and agree to voluntary contribution limits in the current campaign.

Second, adopt the Illinois rule: If you contract with state government, you may not contribute more than $100 to a state campaign.

Third, if any state agency doesn't like the bids it receives, the director's staff should not be permitted to jigger the bid to favor any bidder. Start the process over and stay fair.

Fourth, no state property should be used for political campaigning or fundraising, and no state employees should be involved in political campaigning or fundraising on government time. Not even Congress tolerates this, and that's saying something.

Fifth, no state employees should be taking lobbyist or contractor-funded "fact-finding" trips.

Sixth, stop ignoring the election law already on the books, and enforce the prohibition against running political campaigns through political action committees. It's hard to be the enforcer when the governor's campaign is also a violator.

The $13 million payoff may have been entirely justified to avoid more expensive litigation, but there was no litigation in progress. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that a public administrator worth his salary would fail to tell his boss, in an election year, of a $13 million glitch that would be embarrassing to explain in front of a TV camera. The only thing more inconceivable is that a boss would tolerate it.

It shouldn't take stronger ethics laws to prevent the kinds of lapses which have recently come to light. No doubt, all involved are "good" people. But the cozy system that has evolved over 25 years of one-party government, on autopilot, is not serving taxpayers well.

Karl N. Snow is a former Republican majority leader in the Utah Senate and a retired professor of public administration and management at BYU. David R. Irvine is a former Republican member of the Utah House and a Salt Lake City attorney. Both are members of the Executive Committee of Utahns for Ethical Government.






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