Utah has some of the weakest financial disclosure standards in the country but might be able to look to ethical standard-bearer Louisiana for guidance.
A new state-by-state report on legislative financial disclosure during the 2008 elections, conducted by the Center For Public Integrity, gives Louisiana — which doesn't have a great history of ethical politicians? — an A grade, getting 94.5 points out of a possible 100 — the top ranking.
Utah, on the other hand, gets an F, only 9.5 points out of 100.
"We have a ways to go, especially for a state that prides itself on personal integrity," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, who also heads Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s special public ethics study commission.
Dave Hansen, state GOP chairman and a member of Huntsman's commission, says Utah doesn't pass laws "to rank high on some Washington, D.C., think tank's report. We have good disclosure laws. We have legislators of the highest integrity, who report honestly."
Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, who also sits on the commission, said the think tank's standards "are subjective" and don't reflect the real transparency of Utah's reporting laws.
Admittedly, the center's evaluation doesn't take into account so-called ethics reform made by the 2009 Utah Legislature.
For example, it says Utah's 104 part-time legislators don't have to file annual financial reports. The recent changes, however, now require those reports.
Still, that would have given Utah only 1 point more. Even at 10.5 out of 100, it's still a failing grade.
And on the other side of the ledger, Utah gets 1 point because the State Elections Office has the power to audit legislators' financial reports for accuracy. But in recent testimony before Huntsman's Strengthening Utah Democracy Commission, office bosses said they rarely do audit the reports, and have never recommended an offending legislator or candidate to the Utah attorney general for prosecution. His office doesn't have the manpower for such extensive work, said elections manager Mark Thomas.
Only three states received a worse point total than Utah: Idaho, Michigan and Vermont. All three received zero points. Nineteen other states got F's along with Utah.
"Disclosure is important in all areas of good government," said Jowers, whose group will make recommendations to the 2010 Legislature. "It is simply unacceptable that Utah continues to get F rankings in almost any analysis."
Things can be turned around, however. Louisiana ranked 44th in the center's 2006 evaluation, and jumped from an F to an A through various reforms.
Utah fails in the center's evaluation because it doesn't require much specificity in legislators' financial disclosers or conflict of interest reports.
For example, lawmakers' spouses and children don't have to be listed — lawmakers may choose to do so — nor does a legislator's employer, or the employers of immediate family members. The donors to campaigns don't have to list their professions or employers, either.
Lacking all of the above, and more, makes it difficult for Utah citizens to see conflict of interest connections between donations and the accepting legislators.
Utah lawmakers do have to file conflict of interest statements, separate from any campaign finance reports.
But, again, Utah was ranked down because those conflict reports don't require specific data that is mandatory in some other states, such as the names of any clients professional lawmakers may have, or even the names of the businesses that employ lawmakers.
Last year, GOP House leaders said they wanted significant ethics reform from the 2009 Legislature. But in the end, lawmakers tightened only some areas, ignored others and said they would study a few more.