How much should a lobbyist be able to give a legislator without reporting it, and should religious lobbyists be immune from any reporting?
Those are just two of the many issues swirling around campaign and legislative reform bills that had their first hearing Thurs-day in the Utah House.GOP House leaders have decided a lobbyist reporting bill should have a $100 floor. That is, any freebie worth less than $100 given to a legislator wouldn't have to be reported by a lobbyist, while any gift, sporting event ticket or trip over $100 would be reported.
A bill with that $100 limit was debated in a House committee, but debate halted because of lack of time. The sponsors of the bill, Reps. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, Glen Brown, R-Coalville, and Kim Burningham, R-Bountiful, wanted a $25 minimum threshold, which would include many of the meals lobbyists buy as well as golfing fees and some sporting event tickets.
"We felt considerable pressure to change that to $100," Burningham said.
They also felt considerable pressure to exempt religious lobbyists from disclosure requirements.
Religious lobbyists were excluded from disclosure requirements in the latest draft of the bill - something that didn't sit well with lawmakers who say the influence of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints on the legislative process is already too great.
Said Rep. Dan Tuttle, D-Magna, "Utah is perceived as a church state. We ought to lower this from $100 to 25 cents - the cost of a phone call. That's all it takes to kill a bill here."Tuttle won't support the bill unless religious lobbyists are added back to the bill. Amendments to that effect have already been prepared for the lawmakers to consider.
Political parties, media reporters, individuals who lobby on their own behalf and attorneys representing clients in certain circumstances, like the Public Service Commission, also are exempt from reporting laws.
But House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy, said he feels that the $25 limit wouldn't fly among the House rank-and-file.
"They don't want these things (lunches, etc.) to be a campaign issue," said Moody. "Frankly, they say if it's in there (the bill), they say, `I won't be going to lunch with anyone. It's not worth the political fodder I'll have to take.' "
Moody and other leaders worry that without the daily contact with various lobbyist and special interest groups - which often takes place over a lunch or dinner - the informal communication vital to the legislative process won't function.
"We're not tainted by going to lunch with someone and having them pay. We don't do it for the free lunch but for the information we get. But press reports - including those in the Deseret News- make it look like we are tainted."
With the $100 ceiling, the bill seems to have considerable support in the House. "We're trying to get a good lobbyist disclosure bill and a good legislative campaign reporting bill," said Moody. "Maybe they aren't perfect. But they're better than what we have now."
The year-round legislative campaign reporting bill did make it out of the House committee. That bill, sponsored by House Majority Whip Byron Harward, R-Provo, won easy approval.
Burningham admitted the current draft of the lobbyist bill is a compromise, and he said he and his co-sponsors are not totally happy with it.
"Exemptions really bother me," he said. "Anybody who lobbies with any degree of value should report. Let's let the people know what we are doing. If we make it all open and above board, we will avoid the slippery slope down."
Burningham said Utah is one of only four states that do not require lobbyist disclosures. There are about 10 registered lobbyists for every state lawmaker, he added.