Bateman: Conflicting interests rule state Leg.

By Joseph Bateman

Chris Buttars uttered a racial slur on the Senate floor. He also castigated a judge who ruled against one of Buttars’ biggest campaign contributors. The subsequent outcry was muted from Utah’s majority party. This could be the case of a lone wolf within the legislature — Chris being Chris, as one representative put it. Or it could be a signal that something is seriously wrong with Utah’s politics, that the canaries in the People’s House have all withered away, and no one took notice.

Faced with a supermajority — the ability to override all legislation from the opposing party — since before many U students were even born, Utah’s GOP doesn’t have to bow to its constituents, but it does to its own vested interests.

Just look at Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville. Tilton is the vice chairperson of the Public Utilities and Technology Committee, which could provide the authorization for the construction of nuclear power plants. Not a problem, except Tilton is also the CEO of Transition Power, which is seeking to build nuclear power plants in Utah. Oh, and while working with Gov. Jon Hunstman Jr.’s energy advisory panel, he tried to convince members to support nuclear power. Yet, Tilton pledged to The Salt Lake Tribune that he didn’t have any interest in nuclear development. Could this be a glaring conflict of interest or business as usual in the Utah State Legislature?

It gets better. Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, not only chairs the same committee as Tilton but also sits as director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. Working in cahoots with Tilton’s Transition Power, Noel signed a multimillion dollar deal to provide water for the proposed nuclear plant. The water district has already received a $10,000 signing bonus, and once the water starts flowing, the deal would be worth up to a million a year. What kind of bonuses and raises could Rep. Noel expect for securing a contract like that?

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Salt Lake, has been mute on these and other conflicts of interest. Maybe Rep. Curtis is afraid that his representation of Anderson Developments during planning meetings isn’t the spotlight he wants to appear under. The answer that beehive citizens need to know is when Curtis is a legislator and when he’s not.

Senate Majority Leader Curtis Bramble is seemingly trying to oust these conflicts of interest. “What we’re trying to deal with on conflicts of interest is creating a quantifiable bright line for recusal,” Bramble said. Only it’s hard to tell if the bright line Bramble is looking for is the glare of dollar signs. Last summer-on the payroll of the national waste services company, Allied Waste — Bramble approached Orem’s mayor about selling the city’s waste transfer station. Bramble also arranged for a technical college to build a float for the Utah County Republican Party.

The reality is that Utah has one of the weakest conflict-of-interest laws in the country. While 35 states require legislators to abstain from voting on conflict-of-interest legislation, Utah procedure forces legislators to vote, regardless of the conflict. Utah legislators are, however, required to declare a conflict, but enforcement is lax. If Utah’s majority leaders won’t wash their hands of a bigot like Chris Buttars, then it’s unlikely targeting conflict of interests with the Legislature will gain any traction. What’s worse is that with majority leaders like Curtis and Bramble, it is as if the wolves are guarding the henhouse. Elections are around the corner, though, and voters have a chance to send a clear message that corruption is no longer welcome in the People’s House.

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