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Sen. Curt Bramble

One retiring Utah state senator went to a Hawaiian conference the summer before he left office — so he wasn't around for the next general session where he could have spread knowledge he acquired among the palm trees.

In 2000, five legislators who had lost their re-election bids or were retiring went to Chicago for a legislative meeting, a collective cost to taxpayers of $7,500 for officeholders not around for the upcoming Legislature.

But now the days of legislative lame ducks flying may be over.

Of the 29 House members traveling to out-of-state conferences this summer, none is a lame duck — that is they aren't lawmakers who have already lost their re-election bids or are retiring.

The state Senate has no lame ducks in the air, either. Eleven members are going to various summer conventions — although because two members, Sens. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, are going to two conventions each, there are actually 13 taxpayer-paid trips.

Democratic Sen. Fred Fife of Salt Lake was scheduled to go to a summer convention. But after he lost his seat in the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention in April, he volunteered not to take the trip, said Ric Cantrell, chief deputy of the Senate. Bramble, who is Senate majority leader, said GOP leaders told several lame-duck senators that they could not travel out of state this summer.

The annual summer multiday conferences are: the National Conference of State Legislatures, this year in New Orleans, July 22-26 (the main group that most Utah legislators attend); Council of State Governments (Western meetings), this year in Alaska, Wednesday through Sunday; and the American Legislative Exchange Council, this year in Chicago, July 30-Aug. 3.

Considering that there are 75 House members and 29 senators, 39 percent of the House is going to the out-of-state conventions this summer. The Senate's summer travel costs equate to 45 percent of its membership.

Legislative leaders actually decided to cancel July interim committee meetings because so many lawmakers would be out of state attending the national conferences this month.

Besides attending meetings on how to run government better and lawmaker training, legislators — and their spouses, who often attend summer conferences but not at state expense — are regularly feted by local lobbyists, who gather in convention cities.

This past June, for example, local cable TV lobbyist Steve Proper spent $1,300 buying tickets for Utah legislative leaders to attend a special forum during a convention meeting in Washington, D.C., lobbyist reports show.

When House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, who is going to the National Conference of State Legislatures this month, became the top House leader four years ago, he decided that no lame ducks in his body — either retirees or those who lost their party nominations at spring conventions or in June primaries — would be traveling out of state on the taxpayers' dime, said Chris Bleak, the House chief of staff.

Of course, not until the November election will we know if some House or Senate members who have won their party's nominations will be around for the 2009 and 2010 legislatures. For example, Curtis won his 2006 re-election by only 20 votes over his Democratic challenger.

And two House members who are traveling to summer legislative conferences are trying to step up to the Senate. While they may be favored to win, it is still a challenge for Reps. Brad King, D-Price, and Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, who next week are both going to the CSG meeting in Alaska, to win Senate seats in enlarged districts where they have not run before.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in fact, has become less popular over the years for Utah lawmakers. This summer only one House member and two senators are going. But Bramble said he's working to bring the annual ALEC conference to Salt Lake City in 2011 or 2012 and believes he has a good shot at getting thousands of legislators from across the U.S. here.

In the 1990s, Utah lawmakers had to raise their own money — or pay themselves — for the expenses to go to ALEC, which as a more conservative group was seen as a Republican-leaning organization.

But to keep legislators from paying for the ALEC conference out of their own pockets — or out of their own campaign funds — it became common practice for one or two lobbyists or corporations with business before the Legislature to join up and pay the cost of each lawmaker who wanted to go to ALEC.

That started to look bad — lawmakers asking lobbyists directly for travel money and convention dues — so then-House Speaker Marty Stephens decided that the state would pick up ALEC convention costs, even though few Democrats may want to go. A decade ago, up to a dozen or more Utah lawmakers would go to ALEC each year.

This year, however, only Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, and Bramble and Niederhauser are slated to go to the ALEC summer conference, legislative staffers said.

Bramble is going to both the ALEC meeting in Chicago and the NCSL meeting in New Orleans because he is on the executive board of one group and nominated to the board of the other, a unique and powerful leadership double, said Cantrell.

The out-of-state conventions usually cost several thousand dollars for each attending legislator, depending on where they are flying to and registration dues. In addition, the state pays each year to belong to NCSL ($81,801) and CSG ($61,810). ALEC does not charge states membership dues.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com