The 30 or so souls who happened to attend Thursday morning's meeting of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee got to see one of the ugly sides of the Utah Legislature: Part-time politicians taking out after a group they don't like.

Unfortunately, over the 25 years I've covered the Legislature such bashing-matches are happening more and more. Leaders are doing nothing to stop it; in fact sometimes they seem to fuel the attacks.

Civility is not the legislators' strong suit.

In this case it was the media who were the brunt of Sen. Howard Stephenson's nine-minute tirade. But in recent years it has been environmentalists, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, citizens who come up for a public hearing, only to be ignored or told to shut up and sit down.

When a citizen dared to take the public stand and questioned two House members about their conflicts of interest regarding Intermountain Health Care, the committee chairman — one of those whose conflicts was questioned — told the man to stop talking and leave.

Imagine, confronting a legislator about conflicts of interest?

Thursday morning, those present at the Senate committee saw Stephenson, R-Draper, spew forth things so vindictive that if a citizen had walked to the stand and said them, lawmakers would have quickly told him to shut up.

And if that citizen had kept talking, they would have given him the bum's rush out the door by security.

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 Meeting audio

(Sen. Stephenson begins speaking at 7:30 mark.)

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What was Stephenson, a registered lobbyist himself, so upset about? Two bills that would have required more reporting of legislators' names who take gifts from lobbyists.

The bills wouldn't ban the gifts. Both SB102 and HB101 would have lowered to $10 or $5, respectively, the lobbyist gift-giving naming levels. If a legislator took a gift over those amounts, the lobbyist — who most likely is being paid a high salary to influence the legislator — would have to list the legislator's name in the lobbyist public report.

I could go on and list all of the names Stephenson called the media in general and legislative reporters specifically. We are "killer bees" feeding off of good, upright, decent, self-sacrificing, moral, hardworking legislators. The media only write about the gifts that legislators take to "sell newspapers." A TV station followed legislators to a Florida conference several years ago "and hid in the trees" to take pictures of legislators golfing with lobbyists — a perfectly proper outing — just to practice irresponsible and self-serving yellow journalism.

And on. And on. And on for nine minutes.

Stephenson went on to say that it is proper and right for legislators to take Jazz tickets or $100 meals from lobbyists to get some down time and forget their woes about having to be away from their families during the 45-day general session.

To listen to Stephenson rant one would think it is the duty of part-time legislators to take lobbyists' gifts. Oh, those legislative shirkers who aren't taking their fair share of lobbyists gifts — making the gift-takers go to even more Jazz games and eat more expensive meals — should be ashamed of themselves for not doing their part.

Actually, it is Stephenson and the others of his ilk who should be ashamed.

I really don't know what has happened to the Senate in recent years.

I remember the 1980s when I first started covering the Legislature and the Senate was the body to be respected, where long debates were held on important topics, where statesmen like the late Sen. Warren Pugh led the Legislature and often-reactionary House to wise public policy.

Those days are gone

There were a few wackos in the Senate in those days, like today. But the temperate, smart and farsighted power-brokers in the Senate isolated them.

Now some of the most intemperate senators seem to be setting the Senate agenda.

Frankly, I don't care if legislators use their hobbyhorses to bash the media. I've seen small-minded people come and go in the 75-member House and 29-member Senate. And this too shall pass.

It is the rudeness with which some of these high-minded "public servants" treat the very people they are supposed to be representing that has become boorish.

Committee chairmen and chairwomen are supposed to act like referees, maintaining the proper decorum and calling on citizens fairly to give comment — and not telling people to shut up or go away.

Last year, a House committee chairman bashed the media for about five minutes, even calling out to the audience to challenge any reporter to come forward and explain their conduct, a completely improper use of his gavel.

Did anyone reprimand him? No.

The Legislature and the 104 part-time lawmakers by and large serve Utah well.

But the pettiness of a few of the members grows tiresome. And whether legislators recognize it or not, citizens who spend time at the Legislature see it and don't like it.

At the end of his complaining, Stephenson bemoaned the fact that — because of the irresponsible and unethical media — more good people don't want to run for office. "In a Senate district of 80,000 people there should be 10 or 12 good people" file to run each election.

He's right.

The next time there is a Utah Senate election in Stephenson's District 11 it would be nice if 10 or 12 good people filed to run.

And it's also nice that citizens can look up lobbyists' reports and see which legislators are taking $50 Jazz tickets, meals, golf games, lunches and dinners from people who are being paid a lot of money to influence them.

And it's too bad we won't know which legislators are taking $6 or $30 gifts.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com