Utah lawmakers have changed the way they organize their parties - not their political parties, their party parties.
The Third House - so named for the role lobbyists play between the two official Houses of the Legislature - is still the clearinghouse for meals, tickets and other freebies given away in an attempt to influence lawmakers.But unlike past years, the House no longer accepts cash contributions for its Third House fund and the Senate is being more careful about its Third House operations as well.
The Third House funds once were, in effect, slush funds used by members for quasi-official business like buying gifts for retiring members, flowers for funerals, meals or trips for members or their spouses that didn't fall under the official auspices of the Legislature.
The money came from lobbyists, who either gave freely or under pressure. Lobbyists tell of midnight telephone calls from the speakers of the Third Houses asking that an out-of-town legislator be entertained for the weekend or that $1,000 be donated to their funds.
Today, the money still comes from lobbyists, but both House and Senate members said the arm-twisting days are finished. Lobbyists sign up to sponsor a lunch and get a chance to give their pitch to legislators all in one room, a lobbyist's dream.
The House doesn't have a Third House cash account, and although the Senate still maintains a cash account, gone are the outright solicitations for cash that used to push the Senate's fund over $10,000.
"As of the first of the year we only had $56 in the account," said Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Provo, a certified public accountant who reviewed the Third House books. Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River City, the "speaker" of the Senate's Third House, estimates the fund may grow to $1,000 or so during the session.
"Before the session started all of our caucus lunches were reserved (paid for by a lobbyist)," said Holmgren. "And almost all of our remaining non-caucus lunches are taken as well."
The Senate used to charge more money for a caucus lunch than it cost to feed the 29 senators. The Third House would pocket the difference. That's no longer standard operating procedure.
"We either let the lobbyists pay for the lunch themselves, or we arrange for the catering and bill them," said Holmgren. Sometimes the lobbyists pay more than the billed cost of the lunch - which averages about $150 - in which case the Third House fund grows. But that's up to the lobbyist, Holmgren added.
The House won't allow that. Lobbyists pay for the lunches themselves or are billed only for the exact amount of the catering, which usually ranges between $4.50 and $6 per representative, according to House Chief Clerk Carole Petersen, who keeps the books for the representatives' Third House.
Petersen said nearly $8,000 was collected from lobbyists last year to pay for lunches, and all but some $32 ended up being remitted to cover the expenses associated with the lunches.
Part of what Petersen collects comes from lawmakers who don't want to accept a free lunch from a lobbyist. Among the handful who pay for their own meals when lobbyists sponsor lunches is House Speaker Nolan Karras, R-Roy.
He said tradition and lack of pressure to change their ways has kept more lawmakers from following his lead. "I've never seen anybody applaud me for not doing it," Karras said.
The House speaker, who said he does accept meals from lobbyists who want to meet with him so he can remain accessible, has tried to make sure everyone is aware who is paying for lunch by announcing the sponsors in open session.
In the Senate, Holmgren said several senators whom he declined to name pay money into the Third House fund and consider that paying for their meals.
But most legislators take the Third House freebies in stride. "The meals, the free things, some (legislators) see them as making up for the (financial) sacrifice many take by serving," said Holmgren.
Other freebies come with serving in the Legislature. Lawmakers and their immediate families are invited in February for a free skiing weekend, with lodging, in Park City.
"I don't have any idea how much that is costing the ski resorts," said Holmgren. Senators and their spouses are invited on a snowmobile trip this coming weekend sponsored by the Utah Snowmobile Association.
And legislators also get free tickets to a number of events. "We don't solicit those (free tickets)," said Holmgren. If a senator wants a free ticket to a University of Utah basketball game or to a Jazz game, he makes the request through the Senate's Third House.
"It is strictly between the senator and the school or Jazz whether they get a ticket or not," said Holmgren. However, he hasn't heard of any senator being turned down yet.
The question remains as to how much influence lobbyists get for what they are spending for meals and other Third House activities. "No representative ever had a vote purchased for the price of a lunch," said Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake, the speaker of the representatives' Third House.
Karras said that lawmakers probably don't remember from day to day who bought their lunch. "It's one of those things that probably will never create a problem. But it has that potential," he said.