Half the Utah Senate and a fourth of the House travel to Las Vegas this weekend for the annual convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Four of the 33 legislators scheduled to attend won't be in the 1999 general session. And that leaves legislative leaders who pick who goes open to the question: Why send a lawmaker on a taxpayer-funded trip when he won't be around to sponsor or vote on bills dealing with the topics discussed?Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River City, and Reps. John Arrington, D-Ogden, and Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake City, are not running for re-election this year.

Rep. Brent Haymond, R-Springville, was defeated in the Utah County GOP Convention. Haymond is talking about running a write-in campaign in November against conservative Republican Matthew Throckmorton in the heavily Republican District 65. But no write-in candidate has been elected to the Legislature in decades.

Because the conference is close, air fare so cheap to Las Vegas and the National Conference of State Legislatures got good hotel room rates, it's only costing Utah about $1,000 per lawmaker for the four-day stay. About 15 staff members also are going. So the total tab is around $50,000. Several years ago when Utah lawmakers went to NCSL in Milwaukee the price was around $75,000.

Legislators aren't paid their $100-a-day salaries for out-of-state travel, but they will be reimbursed for meals not provided by the convention and its business sponsors.

House Speaker Mel Brown said retiring members are asked to go "because they have responsibilities to the (NCSL) committees that they've sat on for so long."

A case could be made that a retiring member could give way to a member seeking re-election or in mid-term and thus the newcomer would start his NCSL training earlier, he added.

"But the knife cuts both ways," said Brown, R-Midvale. "While some (not leaving the Legislature) could learn (from the meetings), our (retiring) veterans certainly contribute information to the (NCSL) committee. Not to go would be depriving others of that knowledge."

Sen. George Mantes, D-Tooele, is being replaced on this NCSL trip by Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy. Mantes retires this year. He said he's busy with his private business and he's not going to Las Vegas "because it is inappropriate, me being a lame duck" and out of office in January.

Barth, who is also retiring, said he's going to Las Vegas "to wrap up some items I've been working on for years - domestic-violence and foreign-trade issues." Barth is assigned to NCSL committees dealing with education, labor and job training.

"This is the first time I've actually gone on the tax dollar. I've attended before (but either he or others paid for those trips), and I just showed up," said Barth, who is the House minority whip.

"It's not like I'm going to die. I'll still be around (in 1999 and beyond) to share what I've learned with my constituents and the legislators who replace me," Barth said.

Rep. Robert Killpack, R-Murray, is also retiring this year. Although invited by leaders to attend NCSL and other conferences at various times, Killpack says he has always declined.

"I've traveled a lot in my life, and I decided when I entered (the House in 1992) that if there was something (at a conference) that I could learn from and bring back to the (Utah legislative) committees that I chaired, I'd go. I've never gone," said the retired dentist.

The meetings, daylong affairs, start Monday and run through Thursday. But most lawmakers arrive Sunday to attend any number of social events, most paid for by official corporate sponsors of the convention.

GOP and Democratic legislative leaders say the organizations, and Utah's participation in them, are important to part-time lawmakers who have high learning curves and have to make major decisions that impact citizens' lives.

Several meetings in Las Vegas, for example, deal with electrical and telecommunication deregulation, a process Utah's 104 lawmakers are now going through.

And Utah legislators will redistrict all state House and Senate seats and the U.S. House districts following the 2000 census. Rep. Bud Bowman, R-Cedar City, is attending special reapportionment task force meetings.

The Legislature pays dues of about $150,000 a year to belong to NCSL and another legislative organization, the Council of State Governments.

In the early 1990s several local TV stations attended NCSL conferences and photographed some Utah legislators playing golf with local lobbyists who flew in to entertain officials. After those incidents, legislative leaders warned attendees they had to attend the committees to which they were assigned and to be mindful of proper behavior.

Finally, some out-of-state trips are seen as rewards for years of service. In the mid-1990s, a retiring senator was sent on a conference trip to Hawaii after he'd let it be known he wasn't running again.

This year, Arrington is the senior member retiring. He was first elected to the House in 1978 and in December ends 20 years in office.