Utah is a study in contradictions. Against the backdrop of breathtaking vistas from the northern Wasatch Range to the red rock arches and mesas in southern national parks, Utah projects Hollywood images of western individualism.
Yet, despite an image of rugged independence, Utah politics is dominated by a unique brand of consensus conservatism. Because Republicans hold all statewide elected offices and the GOP has a super-majority grip on the legislature, many important decisions in the state get vetted as party matters rather than the public’s business.
Whether it’s redistricting, closed Republican Senate caucuses, secretive Medicaid expansion discussions or a lack of political campaign contribution limits, state Republican leaders often see no-holds-barred political spending and consensus-building as more important than transparency.
That means open government in Utah sometimes gets short shrift. As recently as 2011, lawmakers voted to gut the state’s open records law in just a few days with little public debate. Boisterous public outcry from across the political spectrum pushed lawmakers back into a special session to undo their actions. Even so, Utah gets only a C- category grade for access to information in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Stunningly, that grade actually ranked Utah tied for 2nd in the nation — but at least one observer said that’s nothing to aspire to.
“It’s actually quite disheartening,” said Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government. “It is astonishing that our government still largely operates in the shadows. And things are only getting worse.”
Added McKenzie Romero, president of the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists: “Utah is a state that shines in so many ways, why shouldn’t information access be one of them?”
Indeed. Utah got failing grades in seven of the State Integrity Investigation’s 13 categories. Overall, the Beehive State Utah ranked 25th among all states, with a grade of D-. That was actually a ranking improvement from the first State Integrity Investigation in 2012, when Utah ranked 36th. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category of redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Even as Utah lawmakers say they have fixed legal flaws to prevent another pay-to-play scandal like the one that has been alleged against Utah’s two former attorneys general, rankings shows that the state’s laws on political finance, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement still earn scores that equal an F when compared with best practices.
“My final surprise is that lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement aren’t even lower,” said Josh Kanter, chairman and founder of the good government group Alliance for a Better Utah.
But Kanter praised the accessibility of the campaign finance data that is collected through Utah’s lieutenant governor’s office, which doubles as the state elections office. “It is my general belief that what the Utah lieutenant governor’s office provides is really quite good,” he said.
Utah’s scores also suffered because it has no limits on campaign contributions.
High marks for budget process
Despite low grades in campaign finance and lobbyist disclosure, Utah’s focus on making its budget process more accessible and understandable got high marks. Utah’s state budget process was the only category in which the state received an A.
Even on that score there are criticisms. Kanter noted that the high grade “ignore[s] how much is done in the legislative session at the last minute that impacts the budget in ways that people don’t see coming.”
Utah does have a handful of online resources to help citizen watchdogs keep an eye on the state’s coffers and monitor other performance measures. For example, a new website, opendata.Utah.gov, shows promise in allowing residents to do their own analysis of a host of government programs. In addition, Utah’s independent auditing safeguards received a B and the openness of Utah’s procurement system got a B-.
One consistent problem across several categories: Utah does not require detailed financial disclosures for the state’s top elected officials, legislators, judges, career civil service employees and their family members. That may have hurt the rankings for Utah’s judiciary, which is otherwise considered a leader in openness.
Jeff Hunt, a Utah attorney who specializes in media law and open government issues, expressed surprise at the low marks for Utah’s courts. “The courts fully appreciate,” he said, that public trust depends on public access and understanding of the judicial process.”