Utah lawmaker wants to dump must-vote rule
Politics • Republican says legislators should be able to abstain if they have a conflict of interest.
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A state representative is reviving a push to change a unique Utah rule that requires lawmakers to vote on bills even when they have a conflict of interest.

A similar effort to dump the prohibition on abstaining from votes failed in 2010, but Rep. Jim Nielson said the current rule is "silly" and something he has thought for years needs to be changed.

In most states, legislators are required to abstain from voting if they have a conflict. In nearly all of the remaining states, they are allowed to abstain. But in Utah, lawmakers must vote, no matter the circumstances.

"I simply want to allow people to choose not to vote and also give them the opportunity to declare a conflict," Nielson said.

Current law requires lawmakers to file a written conflict-of-interest disclosure. If the conflicts aren't reflected on the disclosure, they can orally declare before a vote that they have a conflict.

But if lawmakers are on the floor during a vote, they must vote on the bill, no matter what conflicts they may have. And, in a close vote, legislators can be summoned to the chamber, regardless of where they are, to vote on legislation.

The Bountiful Republican's proposal would leave it up to legislators to decide when they have a personal or financial conflict that rises to the level of standing aside on a vote, and it wouldn't prohibit someone with a conflict from voting on legislation.

"I think we elected grown -ups, and it's up to the representative to determine where their line is and make that decision, and ultimately he or she is accountable to his or her voters for those kinds of decisions," Nielson said.

It's not the first time such a bill has been proposed. In 2008 Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, tried to craft a bill to let senators abstain from voting.

"My conclusion was that … if a legislator believes they have a conflict, perceived or real, that was of such a nature they were more comfortable abstaining from voting, that would be up to the elected official to make that determination," Bramble said.

But the measure got hung up in how to define conflicts of interest and didn't go anywhere. The following year, Bramble reintroduced the proposal, which never got a hearing.

"We tried to go down the road of defining a financial conflict or whatever, and every definition we could come up with, we could come up with 10 ways to circumvent it," he said.

Bramble said that perhaps it's time to revisit the issue and said that if Nielson is able to get movement on his bill in the House, he might be willing to pursue the issue in the Senate.

Maryann Martindale, executive director of the progressive watchdog group Alliance For A Better Utah, said it makes sense to be able to abstain from a vote, but she worries about leaving it up to the legislators on when it should be done.

"If it's just up to the legislators about whether there is or isn't a conflict, then I think they could also choose to not vote on those issues that are slightly controversial," she said. "I would worry it would open it up for them to not participate in the process because they don't want to take a stand. … It's a good idea that maybe isn't quite there."

gehrke@sltrib.comTwitter: @RobertGehrke