News political editorand Jerry SpanglerDeseret News legislative writer
With the final clock ticking down, Utah legislators rushed to finish their annual 45-day session Wednesday with most of the major issues already decided.Final approval is still pending on the fiscal 1991-92 budget of $3.5 billion, but most of the difficult choices have been made.
"A lot of people predicted this would be one of the most political sessions ever," said House Minority Whip Kelly Atkinson, D-West Jordan. "But it has gone so smoothly. AMAX could have become political but it didn't. Campaign disclosure could have gotten ugly, but it didn't. Both sides refused to stoop to petty politics."
The sticky AMAX property tax problem was settled Tuesday afternoon by both the Senate and the House, and that means a small tax increase for many homeowners, business owners and vehicle owners.
Several other matters, most budget-related, must be decided before adjournment at midnight Wednesday.
One of the thorniest issues before the 1991 session was settled Tuesday when the Senate and House passed a comprehensive disclosure bill that requires lobbyists to reveal all cash and gifts totaling more than $100 that they give to elected officials.
Both houses also acted on a pair of legislative campaign reform bills, but each passed a different version and appear stalemated on which version is better. Both the Senate and House campaign bills require legislative campaign disclosure before elections, but the House has some tougher reporting requirements not found in the Senate version.
Despite the fact the Democratic and Republican parties have endorsed the House bill, many House Democrats opposed the House measure. Atkinson, for one, said it simply goes too far, taking a "part-time legislator and making him be a CPA and a Philadelphia lawyer all rolled into one."
Senators also passed tough conflict of interest and ethics rules - which deal with how senators and representatives conduct themselves in office - and sent those to the House, as well.
The lobbyist bill passed overwhelmingly - with only one senator voting against it - but not before some senators criticized the media - specifically the Deseret News - for "making the news, not reporting the news."
Several said they had not heard any concerns from the public about lobbyist influence in the part-time Legislature until news stories started appearing in newspapers last fall and on TV during the session.
The lobbyist-reporting bill requires registered lobbyists - defined as those who are paid and spend money lobbying legislators - to file financial reports several times a year. The lobbyist must list the total amount spent on legislators and list any individual legislator who receives more than $100 for a specific event - like a trip.
Senate Majority Whip Lane Beattie, R-Bountiful, said he had not received one telephone call critical of the legislator/lobbyist relationship in 21/2 years of service until last fall, when a story on the subject appeared in a local newspaper.
"We don't want to restrict the press, but how do we let the people know when the press leads, deceives, creates the news instead of reporting it?" Beattie asked.
Beattie, who voted for the bill, said he now anticipates that when lobbyists report how much is spent on an individual legislator, that the legislator's political opponent will use the information "to blow (the report) out of proportion; they'll be given the information to distort in inappropriate ways.
"We talk about what affects us (here in the Legislature)," he added. "Lobbyists' (power) is so insignificant (compared) to the power of the news media."
Senators debated for some time whether to lower the $100 individual expenditure cap to $25, $35 or $50. All attempts to lower the cap failed, leaving the lid at $100.
Lowering the cap to $25 per event could pick up some lunches or dinners paid for by lobbyists. A number of senators took offense at the suggestion that their votes could be bought for a meal. Others, like Sens. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Millie Peterson, D-Salt Lake, said lobbyists have been conditioned to buy lunches for legislators as part of their work.
"I had a lobbyist who wanted to meet with me. We couldn't work out a time for lunch so he wanted to come out to my house one night," said Peterson. "I said sure. But he wanted to bring dinner with him. I was shocked. I said, `No, I don't want your food, just your information.' "
Sen. Karen Shepherd, D-Salt Lake, said the individual cap should be $25 because any secrecy leads to misimpressions in the public. "We need to fix public opinion on this," she said. Quoting a Deseret News/
KSL-TV poll, Shepherd said, "Ninety percent of Utahns want full lobbyist disclosure. We have a problem and we should be straightforward about it."
Sen. Rex Black, D-Salt Lake, who wanted the level kept at $100, said, "A couple of inaccurate stories in the Deseret News were untrue and inflamed the public. They (lobbyists) don't buy a vote with a meal. We've all fought with them (lobbyists) and won."
Whether the individual cap is $100 or $25 won't matter to some professional lobbyists. Dave Spatafore is the lobbyist for the Utah League of Cities and Towns and cable TV companies. Because the bill calls for a one-year suspension of a lobbyist's license for failure to report accurately, Spatafore says, he's decided to report all expenses made on each legislator, regardless of the amount.
"This is my livelihood. I can't afford to take the risk of a mistake, be suspended for a year. It would bankrupt me," he said.
Duties left for lawmakers:
- Make final budget compromises.
- Adopt an $80 million to $100 million bonding package.
- Set state worker pay raises.
- Decide if McDonnell Douglas gets a $10 million state loan.
- Decide whether to raise cigarette taxes.