Student Researchers Advocate for Ethics Reform in State Legislature

July 6, 2009

 
Members of the Weber State University Student Ethics
Committee flank Utah Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert during a recent
visit to the state Capitol. Pictured from left to right are 
S. Shane Woody, Chris Bentley, Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert,
Adam Gardiner, Brandon Marsh and Meghan Froerer
 

 

OGDEN, Utah – Following extensive research, including interviews with state legislators, a group of Weber State University students is encouraging Utah lawmakers to adopt more comprehensive ethics reforms.

The researchers even had a chance to share their report with Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert during a recent visit to the state Capitol.

Under the umbrella of the Richard Richards Institute for Politics, Decency and Ethical Conduct, the Weber State University Student Ethics Committee (WSUSEC) spent three months this spring identifying which concerns about ethics were among the most important to the Utah State Legislature.

The students’ research included collecting data, examining practices in other states, interviewing lawmakers, and reviewing poll data and ethics legislation passed during the 2009 session.

Based on their research, the eight-student committee recommended four actions to strengthen ethics in the state legislature:
  1.) formation of an independent ethics commission,
  2.) adoption of campaign finance limits,
  3.) implementation of more stringent lobbying guidelines, and
  4.) adoption of an independent redistricting commission.

“It’s interesting to note that two of the students’ recommendations—items one and four—also were under consideration by the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy, but were later dropped,” said Nancy Haanstad, chair of WSU’s Department of Political Science and a faculty mentor to the student researchers.

The WSUSEC interviewed members of the legislative standing ethics committees in both the Utah House of Representatives and the Utah Senate. Ten of the 16 legislators that comprise both committees agreed to be interviewed for the project (all 16 were contacted and invited to take part). The respondents were evenly split—five each—between the two committees and party lines.

While citing several news articles and polls demonstrating public support for ethics reform, the students report found that enacting such legislation is difficult, and most bills address only a small issue, instead of taking a comprehensive approach. This finding was underscored in the 2009 legislative session, which had 38 bills on ethics presented, but only five passed.

 

 Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert speaks to WSU students during a
recent visit to the state Capitol Building.

Ethics reform has received substantial public attention in Utah. The WSUSEC cites a 2009 Dan Jones & Associates poll that found that 75 percent of Utahns favor state ethics reform. In 2008, the Better Government Association (BGA) published an integrity index that ranked Utah 36th among the 50 states, citing disappointing performance on campaign-finance, open-meeting and conflict-of-interest laws.

The students provide some level of detail with each recommendation, citing effective examples from other states that could serve as models, outlining the potential make-up and scope of independent commissions, and drawing on public opinion survey results and statements from lawmakers who were interviewed.

In sharing its findings, the WSUSEC suggests that failure to adopt meaningful ethics reform threatens the credibility of the legislature.

“Mistrust in government comes when the public perceives that the government lacks integrity, accountability, or transparency, and such feelings may have severe consequences for the legitimacy of the government,” the report states in its concluding section.

The WSUSEC comprises eight politically active undergraduate students, including Christopher Bentley, of Ogden; Ariana Escalante, of Ogden; Meghan Froerer, of Ogden; Adam Gardiner, of Layton; Ryan Jessen, of Ogden; Michelle A. Johnson, of Pleasant View; Brandon Marsh, of Layton; and S. Shane Woody, of Ogden. The eight-member committee was evenly divided in terms of political party affiliation.

 
 Members of the WSUSEC pose with Richard Richards
 (fourth from right) and professors Gary Johnson (far left) and
Nancy Haanstad (third from right) at the State Capitol Building.
Bentley and Gardiner served as co-chairs of the committee and Johnson compiled and synthesized the data and information into the final report. Bentley, Froerer, Gardiner, Jessen and Woody conducted the interviews with lawmakers, along with other research and writing tasks. Associate political science professors Haanstad and Gary Johnson facilitated and oversaw the project.

The Department of Political Science has produced bound copies of the report, which the students plan to share with state lawmakers, members of the media and the general public. Electronic copies of the report are available on the Richards Institute for Politics, Decency and Ethical Conduct Web site at weber.edu/richardsinstitute.

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.

Contact:
Nancy Haanstad, chair, Department of Political Science
801-626-6698 • nhaanstad@weber.edu
Author:
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 • jkowalewski@weber.edu

Weber State UniversityOgden, Utah 84408

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