Utah's part-time lawmakers are people just like you and your next-door neighbors.
But aside from making laws and taxing us, legislators also get free tickets to Donny Osmond's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the Utah Jazz, the Utah Symphony and rounds of golf in Hawaii.They get enough free lunches thrown at them to choke a horse.
Some legislators take nothing. Others only a free lunch here or there, like a sandwich on a special trip on a commuter train to see mass transit up close and personal.
But some say Utahns should know who is taking what from whom.
Every year since 1992 Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, has tried to tighten the law on what kinds of gifts lawmakers take from lobbyists.
Every year but one he's failed.
Tanner spent a lot of time in 1998 working out his newest gift-taking bill. But it's gone absolutely nowhere this session, not even to a committee's public hearing.
That's because GOP leadership in the House and Senate became involved in the issue several weeks ago. Senate President Lane Beattie said last week that if he and Tanner can agree on a measure, Tanner would sponsor it with Beattie's support. But if they can't, Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said he would run his own bill on lobbyists and gifts for legislators.
If this sounds familiar, it is.
Before the 1995 Legislature. Beattie said he would be running a number of ethics measures. He ended up deferring to Tanner, who did run some bills that ultimately failed.
At the end of the 1996 session. Beattie, while running the Senate floor from the president's podium, tried to write amendments to a gift bill that would more clearly define what should be reported by lobbyists. But Beattie couldn't find a workable solution and abandoned that effort. Nothing happened that year, either.
Current lobbyist-reporting law says if a registered lobbyist spends more than $50 a day on any lawmaker, he must report the lawmaker by name on his public report along with the amount. Spend less than $50 a day and only the amount spent - with no legislator's name attached - must be reported.
Not surprisingly, few lawmakers' names appear on the reports. That's partly because most legislators don't take items worth more than $50 from a lobbyist in one day. But it's also because a few lobbyists have found ways around the law.
Said one GOP House leader: "More is going on than the press is reporting. That's one reason we (in leadership) wanted to look at this problem."
One practice common among some lobbyists, certainly not all, is "grouping" of expenses. Several lobbyists will share the cost of a Utah Jazz ticket or a round of golf or other gift offered to a lawmaker. Because no single lobbyist spent more than $50 - although the total may be $200 - on the legislator, the lobbyists' individual reports show no legislator by name.
The price of a Jazz home game for seats in the lower bowl of the Delta Center are now $57 apiece and up. Yet for all the Jazz games attended by some lawmakers, few of the legislators' names show up on reports. (There are exceptions; Geneva Steel in its 1997 report listed all legislators who receive Jazz tickets from the steelmaker.)
As event ticket prices rise, lawmakers face either accepting the above ruse, which troubles some leaders, refusing tickets or having their names listed.
In any case, lobbyists traditionally spend upward of $100,000 entertaining the 104 lawmakers during the year, with the bulk of that coming in January and February when lawmakers are in session.
Tanner, over the years, has tried to both restrict what lawmakers can take, dollar amounts on the amounts of gifts and more disclosure of who takes what.
His original bill this year tried to more closely define what was a gift. It would have allowed lawmakers to take any item that was offered to all 104 members (like a lunch in the Capitol Rotunda by a special interest group), let them take any ticket to any arts or other non-profit organization (like the yearly free concert to the Utah Symphony) and any gifts offered by institutions of higher education (which would allow for the yearly tickets to the University of Utah chili bash and gymnastic meet and free tickets to the BYU-Utah football and basketball games.)
But even with all the exceptions, Tanner's bill would have restricted some gift-taking by some lawmakers and could have resulting in prosecutions and public embarrassment by legislators and lobbyists alike, several GOP leaders said.
Thus, Beattie's attempt to find a solution. "I'm working on a bill that is simpler to (comply with) yet goes further (in disclosure of gifts)," the president said last week.
Beattie said one of his goals is to find something most members of the House and Senate can accept but won't lead to "just more negative media" about lawmakers accepting gifts.