Utah's three House members spent $370,000 to send newsletters and postcards last year with their franking privilege for "free mail" at taxpayer expense, a study shows.

Although House members legally do not have to reveal how much is spent on such mailings, the National Taxpayers Union went through printing orders and other public files to tally printing and mail costs.The study, released last week, said the spending for Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, was $236,244 on franked mass mail to voters in 1989 - nearly four times more than either of his House colleagues from Utah.

The outlay for Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, was $64,160. Retiring Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, spent $69,320. Owens and Hansen verify the amounts listed for them are correct, but Nielson's office figures his is slightly too high.

The situation has Owens' opponent, Republican Genevieve Atwood, upset.

"What this means is we already have public funding of campaigns in the form of the franking privilege," she said. "But we are only funding the incumbent."

She said while Owens spent more than a quarter of a million dollars in 1989 to tell voters what he is doing through newsletters, she had not yet raised any money.

In fact as of 10 days before the primary this month, she had only raised $48,341 in campaign contributions - about one-fifth what Owens spent the year before in government-paid franked mail. Atwood has also lent her campaign $100,000 of her own money to keep it afloat.

She said franked mail "is one of the reasons that people in Congress have a higher likelihood of dying than not getting re-elected." Of the 409 members of Congress who ran for re-election in 1988, only six were defeated. Six later died in office or resigned from scandal.

Owens responded to Atwood saying, "Of course she's complaining about the frank; challengers always do. But those who win always use it because it's a great tool for communication. I don't deny that it has some beneficial side effects, but they are minimal.

"But don't make any apologies because I like to communicate with people and like to see them face to face in the district."

Hansen and Nielson agree the frank is useful but should not be abused.

But National Taxpayers Union President James Davidson said it is being abused and that franked mail is forcing taxpayers to pay for political campaigning. He said that a semi-trailer truck could contain the average daily mail volume for the House - about 2.1 million pieces per day.

David Keating, National Taxpayers Union executive director, added that the House will spend $136 million on mail in 1989 and 1990 - which is more than the $130 million individuals donated to House candidates in the last election cycle and the $102 million that political action committees gave.

"Clearly, the average incumbent spends far more on the frank than the average challenger spends on his entire election campaign," Keating said. His group wants the House to clearly and more easily report how much it spends on mailings, as the Senate now does - which cut down its mailing costs.

The new study said Owens sent 793,232 copies of four newsletters last year at an average cost of 55 cents per district household. He could have sent up to six newsletters that year. He also sent 991,540 postcards announcing town meetings in the district. Owens' press secretary, Art Kingdom, said that so far in 1990, Owens has sent out three newsletters - the maximum allowed during an election year - and six sets of town meeting cards.

The study said Hansen sent out 447,000 copies of two newsletters last year at a cost of 29 cents per district household. Rick Guldan, Hansen's press secretary, said he sent out two more newsletters this year.

Hansen has said he plans to introduce legislation next year limiting members of Congress to no more than two newsletters a year. "In light of the current budget crisis . . . we'd best start by putting our own house in order," Hansen said.

The study said Nielson sent 156,344 copies of one newsletter last year at a cost of 14 cents per district household, plus 366,688 town meeting cards. His press secretary, J. Morgan Young, said those numbers are slightly too high because more forms were printed than mailed. Nielson sent one newsletter this year.

Young also noted the town meeting cards are especially important to Nielson. "We found that without them, one or two people show up. But when we send them out, we always have a good crowd."

While the cost of newsletters and town meeting cards may seem high, Keating said it "is only the tip of the iceberg" of how the franking privilege helps members of Congress.

He said each office is given up to 40,000 franked envelopes a month to send correspondence, and many send out letters to targeted interest groups with them.

Also, postage and printing are only part of the House mailing costs. Other costs include staff, envelopes, paper, office space, typesetting and design costs for newsletters and computer equipment.