Local contest highlights unfair conflict laws
Throughout much of our state, a good primary challenge is the only exciting race many Utahns get to see.
This may very well be the case in state Senate District 11, which includes Highland, Alpine, Lehi and Draper. This race may be more interesting than others because of a complex issue that it brings up -- a completely unfair application of law regarding conflicts of interest.
Dwayne Nielson (Alpine) has announced that he will seek the Republican nomination, challenging incumbent Howard Stephenson (Draper).
I recently learned that should Nielson, who is chairman of the Southern Utah University's board of trustees, win the primary and ultimately the general election, state law will force Nielson to resign his seat on the board of trustees due to a "conflict of interest."
I do not have a problem with keeping genuine conflicts of interest out of government: That's a big part of ethics reform that should be incorporated into state law. However, I do see a problem with the inequity of Utah laws where some conflicts of interest are supposedly worse than others.
Stephenson, who has long served as the senator for District 11, has also been serving as president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, and is also a registered lobbyist according to the state government's Web site.
The taxpayers association is one of the state's largest special interest groups, promoting the welfare of Utah corporations and businesses.
I find it troubling that being an unpaid volunteer on a oversight board for a state-run university is too much of a conflict of interest, yet serving as the chief executive of one of Utah's large lobbying organization is not.
I am not a friend of Nielson's, nor am I a Republican, but I have had the chance to work with him in his role as a trustee. I have seen the good leadership he has given SUU, and the objective guidance he can continue to provide in the future on the board of trustees, even as a member of the Utah Senate.
Nielson and Stephenson are two good men who both work hard to promote interests that they see as important -- one for the Utah System of Higher Education and the other for Utah businesses.
These two men are not alone; legislators and state officials from across the spectrum serve on various boards and commissions helping to make their communities better and promoting all sorts of special issues -- so why is higher education so different?
I think that if the state law is going to keep higher education volunteers out of the legislature, then it ought to ban registered lobbyists, board members and volunteers of all sorts.
But we need to continue to encourage our legislators to be involved in their communities and in supporting causes and institutions they are passionate about.
Though this law has good intentions, it is potentially keeping good people from making a difference in the state of Utah beyond the Senate floor, and it is time for it to be changed.
• Dennis Busch is a senior at Southern Utah University and a member of the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service.
© 2010 Provo Daily Herald, Dennis Busch