This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Rep. Jacob Anderegg was trying to adopt a child from China two years ago when the House started debating whether to double a tax break for adoptions.
The Lehi Republican said he didn't want bad press by voting for a bill that would financially benefit him.
"So I took a walk" during the vote, he says.
That was his only option "to be squeaky clean," he says, since he could not legally abstain while in the House chamber. Utah and Oregon are the only states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, where legislators cannot abstain nor simply vote "present," an option that the U.S. Congress allows.
That makes it tougher for lawmakers to navigate the minefield of conflicts of interest, which are common in a part-time legislature where most have other full-time jobs. In fact, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows one of every four bills this year is sponsored by someone with a potential conflict of interest or, in the eyes of some, a "special expertise."
Legislative leaders say they have taken steps to bring more transparency to conflicts of interest. But critics say Utah is an outlier on ethics rules.
Playing 'chicken' • Allowing lawmakers to abstain from voting is often proposed in Utah's Capitol but has never been adopted for one main reason: Leaders worry some members might use it as an excuse to duck politically tough votes.
Anderegg, a member of the House Rules Committee, which this year again rejected allowing abstentions, offered an example.
He said the Legislature is expected to vote on transportation tax increases this year.
"I promise half the body wants to duck out on that one," he said. "That has nothing to do with conflicts of interest. It has everything to do with self-preservation" in the next election.
To pass, bills need votes by a majority of all members not just those present. Hitting that number 38 in the House and 15 in the Senate could be tough, Anderegg said, when "you will have people who are chicken, who are going to duck out" on tough votes.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, agrees. "I think when you open up the ability to abstain, you will have people abstain on the tough issues. I would hate to see us go down that road."
He'll get no argument from new House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
"If you get into abstentions on votes, it's not necessarily under the banner of conflicts," Hughes said. "It's, 'I don't want to make a hard vote.' "
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, said it's precisely that view that killed his proposal to allow abstentions again this year in the Rules Committee. Members simply adjourned without voting avoiding a tough vote themselves.
Last year, an identical bill by now-retired Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, was passed over by the same committee when it ruled it had to adjourn without voting because its time had expired and the House was scheduled to be on the floor. The House did not actually begin its floor session for another 12 minutes.
Powell doesn't buy the argument that the ability to abstain will lead to abuses. It likely would be "used quite rarely in extraordinary circumstances" because "a lawmaker knows that they would receive some really harsh criticism" for skipping difficult votes.
True to forms • Legislative leaders say they have created a system to adequately address conflicts of interest.
Lawmakers are required to fill out conflict-of-interest forms before the Legislature convenes, listing their employers, boards on which they serve, their spouses' employers and anything else they see as potential conflicts.
As long as such a conflict is listed on the form (which is posted online), rules do not require members to declare it verbally during debate or voting.
If a conflict comes up that is not addressed on disclosure forms, rules say members should declare it verbally.
"We have to list all those conflicts out there, and that's all for the public to see," says Niederhauser. He believes it's an effective solution.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, sees problems with the current system.
"Most people don't know that conflict-of-interest forms exist or how to find them," she says. But seeing that a lawmaker has abstained is easy and allows constituents to ask for an explanation. Forcing lawmakers to vote when they have a blatant conflict "erodes public trust," she says. "It's a real problem."
She adds, "If 48 other states are doing that, it's the norm, not a novel idea. ... We are the outlier."
Another criticism she has for the current conflict-of-interest safeguard is that the Legislature's forms may not provide sufficient transparency. For example, she says, relocating the state prison is a big issue now but not enough details are included on conflict forms to show whether someone owns land near the old prison that would become more valuable.
And the value and specificity of the information provided varies widely from lawmaker to lawmaker. Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, for one, takes a broad view. "As a member of the human race and a citizen of Utah, all of what the Legislature deals with will have a direct or indirect impact, either positively or negatively, upon myself and my family," he wrote on his form.
He also disclosed that he works in insurance and is a concealed-weapons-permit instructor. He sponsored bills affecting both of those areas this year.
Republican Sen. Mark Madsen's form has caused some consternation. For the past few years, his forms reported that he worked for Eagle Mountain Properties, a company controlled by a developer who proposes relocating the state prison to his land in Eagle Mountain. Some of Madsen's constituents complained he was representing the company more than them.
Madsen then said he made a mistake on his form and actually had not worked for the developer for years but had copied incorrect information from one year to the next.
Slew of examples • To illustrate how many potential conflicts occur, The Tribune compared all bills introduced this year with written conflict-of-interest statements filed by sponsors.
The review identified at least 180 bills about one of every four filed so far that represents a potential conflict of interest or at least falls into the sponsor's professional area of expertise. At least 66 of the 104 lawmakers filed such bills. Some examples:
• Three doctors in the House prescribed numerous changes in health-care law. Reps. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, Edward Redd, R-Logan, and Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, sponsored seven such bills between them. Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, a doctor in the Senate, pushed two such bills.
• Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, an orthodontist and dental professor, sponsored SB92 Dental Practice Amendments.
• Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is a pharmacist and sponsored SB158 Pharmacy Amendments.
• House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, owns an insurance agency. He sponsored three bills dealing with the insurance industry.
• Rep. Justin Miller, D-Salt Lake City, is executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union in Utah. He introduced five bills dealing with worker wages and working conditions, including one to raise the minimum wage to $10.25 an hour.
• Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant. He sponsored six bills affecting traffic laws or law-enforcement officers, including one to toughen seat-belt laws.
• Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, has served as a brigadier general in the Utah National Guard. He ran seven bills affecting the National Guard, from changing its command structure to amending the state military code of justice.
• Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. He sponsored three bills that would amend tax laws.
• Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, is an architect. He sponsored three bills affecting building codes or related industries.
• At least 45 bills deal this year with election, ethics or legislative-procedure laws. They affect every legislator.
Balance? • Niederhauser says the beauty of a part-time legislature is that it can take advantage of all the expertise that its members have from a variety of professions, jobs and backgrounds. That also creates potential conflicts of interest. He believes, though, that there are inherent safeguards.
"We're a very diverse citizen legislature," he says, noting that no group of professionals has enough members to dominate or push through bills to help their own industry without close scrutiny. "We have a check and balance over each other."
Niederhauser said lawmakers "ought to have the courage to vote our conscience and face our constituency on our conflicts of interest and how we vote."
Hughes, the new House speaker, says he doesn't believe that a member who works in an industry has a conflict by simply running bills that may affect them. "I don't see a schoolteacher weighing in on classroom issues being a conflict. I think they offer an important perspective."
It is different, he added, "if a bill were to impact you personally above and beyond what it would [affect] the industry for which you work. That would be a conflict."
Hughes said the transparency rules in place are designed to help prevent problems.
"We're sent by constituents here to represent them. We've got to be ready to vote" on every issue.