Each year lobbyists buy Utah legislators meals, give them free trips inside or outside the state and treat them to free sporting events and shows. By some estimates, $75,000 to $100,000 is spent on such activities.
Just how much such "freebies" affect the decisions made by legislators is debatable, but at least one state senator wants to keep track of how much lobbyists spend on entertaining lawmakers.Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, wants an interim study committee to consider making registered lobbyists list such expenditures with the lieutenant governor's office.
"I want to tighten up our regulations on such giving," he said. "Quite honestly, I don't even know what the rules are."
That's because there are no definitive rules.
Ethical conduct in the part-time Legislature is controlled by Joint Rule 16. The rule talks in generalities, saying the legislators shouldn't do anything that would place them in a conflict of interest or unfairly influence their voting.
One section of the rule says: "Members of the Senate and House may accept small gifts, awards or contributions if these favors do not influence them in the discharge of official duties." But it doesn't define "small" and doesn't define "influence."
"I think we need some firm guidelines," said Hillyard. Making lobbyists report what they spend on entertaining lawmakers could accomplish two things, he believes: Lobbyists may spend less, not wanting to be publicly seen as trying to buy votes, and lawmakers may be more careful in accepting such freebies, not wanting to be criticized at election time.
Hillyard wants lobbyists, not lawmakers, responsible for detailing such spending because he doesn't want his legislative colleagues to suffer if they forgot to report a free meal and thus violated the law. It could also be embarrassing if lawmakers had to ask their lobbyist host how much a meal or plane trip cost so that the lawmaker could report it.
"Lobbyists already have to register with the lieutenant governor's office. They would just have to file an additional statement of spending," Hillyard said.
The Deseret News talked to several lobbyists about Hillyard's proposal. They asked that their names not be used, since their job is educating and influencing the legislators they talked about.
"I don't think there is a real problem, and so I don't see the need for such a rule," said one attorney who is a well-known lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
"I probably do as much or more entertaining than any other unaffiliated lobbyist, and I don't spend more than $2,000 a year. Hey, it comes out of my pocket. Rarely do I bill a client for entertaining a legislator, and so I watch my expenses," he said.
Institutional lobbyists, those representing large corporations, have lobbying budgets. One such lobbyist said his budget has decreased over the past five years, and he doesn't spend the money entertaining he once did. "I probably spend $250 to $300 a month (3,000 to $3,600 a year) working with legislators," he said. Making him report what he spends on legislative entertainment "would be nitpicking."
"We have a lay Legislature. And when you know these legislators as well as I do, you sometimes do business with them in their private concerns. How do you report that? I've had an insurance policy with Haven Barlow for years," he said. Sen. Haven Barlow, R-Layton, owns an insurance agency and has been in the Senate for 30 years.
Another lobbyist, who yearly buys a package of Jazz tickets and gives them out to legislators, said, "You bet they know where these (reebies) are. I must have gotten a dozen calls from legislators asking for Laker playoff game tickets. Needless to
say, I didn't have enough tickets."
There are several traditional legislative outings each year. Some are cliques, with only certain members invited. Others are for all members.
All legislators are invited to a golf tournament at Wasatch State Park. Lobbyists pick up those expenses.
One elite trip is a weekend golf outing to St. George for a dozen or so lawmakers. "We pay for part of it, the legislators pick up some and the city of St. George picks up the golf fees," said the lobbyist who helps organize the trip. "It's not that big of a thing. Some of the guys (n the Legislature) have come to count on it.
"It would be burdensome to report," he said. "What if you forgot something? Lobbying is my job, could I be barred from doing my job because I inadvertently didn't report something?"
Hillyard's idea is supported by legislative leaders. "It's fair for the public to know who is doing what to whom," said House Majority Leader Nolan Karras, R-Roy.
"I have no problem with it," said Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy. "But there is a misconception that large sums of money are spent by lobbyists entertaining us. That just isn't the case. We all get offered trips now and then. Most of us are too busy to accept."