This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes tells reporters that, if he were Howard Hughes, he'd personally pay for his colleagues in state government to visit the Swiss Alps to see how public transportation is done right.
Whether intended or not, the reference to the billionaire who shares his last name is telling. Greg Hughes likes to get his way, and do it with secrecy that can seem obsessive.
That's a problem for an office holder allegedly accountable to the citizens who elected him. But that's who Hughes is. He prefers the back room deal to the House floor debate and vote, as demonstrated in the slow death of Medicaid expansion in Utah.
Hughes' latest stealth move: Arranging for legislators, their wives and transit decision-makers to travel to Switzerland to ride the trains two months ago. Hughes, former chairman of Utah Transit Authority, took a public relations hit with trips to Europe before, when such junkets fueled the perception that UTA officials were lavishly running amok with high salaries topped by bonuses, and frequent trips abroad all with public money.
This time, the European travel was privately financed, in part by a political action committee formed by two UTA board members, two of the agency's lobbyists and several politicians. The largest donors to the PAC are construction companies that have built rail projects for UTA, companies that could stand to gain from any future rail projects in Wasatch Front canyons.
Adding to the cynicism of this week's discovery of the late September trip is the fact that all this played out while voters were deciding the merits of Proposition 1, a sales tax increase that would add significant public money to UTA in the counties where the agency operates. Had the trip been organized by UTA, it would have become public knowledge, as all travel by agency officials now must be approved in an open board meeting.
Prop. 1 passed in 10 counties, and was defeated in seven, including Salt Lake County. As it turns out, voter skepticism appears well founded in light of this week's revelation.
UTA, for its part, insists it was not aware of the Swiss trip. That claim sounds specious considering some of the funding came from the PAC headed by board members Justin Allen and Chris Bleak. Bleak resigned his position on Wednesday, and two more resignations were expected from UTA's board.
There may be a good reason for transit decision-makers to travel once to Switzerland to see how world-class transit operates. But those trips should be discussed in open meetings, with officials making the argument to spend public money on such fact-finding. They should not be secretly financed by private companies standing to profit should mountain rail become a reality in Utah. And the speaker of the House should learn this lesson: Conduct the people's business before the people.