SALT LAKE CITY — When the Utah Legislature convenes next month, one publicly funded agency will have as many as eight lobbyists bending lawmakers' ears on Capitol Hill.
The Utah Transit Authority spends more on in-state lobbying than any local government entity. From 2008 through September 2012, UTA contracts with state lobbyists totaled nearly $1.3 million, according to figures provided by the agency. On average, it pays out about $260,000 a year.
A Deseret News and KSL-TV analysis of public agency and local city spending on state lobbyists shows UTA at or near the top of the list not only locally but nationally as well.
In comparison to transit agencies in a dozen large cities across the country, only Houston outspends UTA on in-state lobbying. Some major cities including Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis don't contract with state lobbyists at all.
UTA also ranks among the biggest spenders on transportation-related lobbying in Washington, information detailed previously as part of the Deseret News/KSL report. In total, UTA has paid $3.5 million to lobbyists at the federal and state level the past five years.
Transit authority officials defend the big spending, saying every dollar spent has brought more than $500 to the agency. In the past five years it has hauled in more than $1 billion in federal funds for operating costs and system expansion, more dollars per capita than any metropolitan transit agency in the country.
UTA general manager Mike Allegra called it a "choreographed" effort that requires establishing many relationships.
"I think we've had some of the best success in the country in terms of soliciting dollars as well as providing policy direction both at the federal and a little bit more at the state level now," he said while riding FrontRunner on a test run to Provo. "With the transition from federal policies to state policies, we have put a little more emphasis on state."
Only Sandy comes close to UTA in terms of number of lobbyists and dollars spent. The city currently contracts with six local firms or individuals and has paid them $1.2 million the past five years. It spent another $900,000 to lobby in the nation's capital.
Allegra said UTA is larger than any city in Utah in terms of its annual budget and "scope of what we provide."
UTA is in the midst of its $2.3 billion expansion project, adding 70 miles of rail service, including the FrontRunner South commuter train to Provo that opened Monday. TRAX extensions to Salt Lake City International Airport and to Draper are scheduled to open next year. Local dollars fund about 80 percent of that project, while the remainder is federal money.
One state Senate leader, however, questions the need for publicly funded entities to send contract lobbyists to the Legislature at all, and has proposed laws over the years to ban it, but without success.
"I don’t think we should allow lobbying from agencies that have public money," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. "I just don't think it should be allowed, especially for those people who are up here and we deal with them on a regular basis. They can knock on my door and walk in any time, so why do you need a lobbyist?"
What UTA gets from lobbying on the state and local levels is less visible than on the federal level.
Bruce Jones, UTA general counsel, said it's about listening to and educating local and state elected officials in the 80 cities and six counties in the transit district, not proposing or selling legislation. Transit issues, he said, are complex because they involve planning for roads, utilities and land use.
"I would say 80 percent of our agenda is to respond to inquiries, not to lobby for specific causes," he said.
Lobbyists act as UTA's eyes and ears, relaying information from mayors or legislators gathered in meetings or other settings. "That is a huge expenditure of manpower, but it's critical," Jones said.
"There would be many that would say we don't spend near enough resources in communicating with cities and counties and the federal government," he said. "We try to balance that. Hopefully, we've struck a good balance."
UTA has considered hiring a full-time government relations specialist. But Jones said it's more cost-effective right now to buy a portion of time with those who have expertise with city or state governments.
"It's hard to find one or two or five people that have all of those talents and to spend less money than we spend, frankly," he said.
The UTA juggernaut deploys a roster of well-connected, politically savvy local lobbyists who run in the same circles as UTA board members, state legislators and local government leaders.
They include former Republican House Speaker Greg Curtis and former Senate President Miles "Cap" Ferry, according to documents on file in the lieutenant governor's office. Curtis served in the Legislature with current UTA board chairman and Republican House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, of Draper.
Others include Capitol Hill lobbyists Dave Stewart, Alan Dayton and Mike Zuhl, who works for longtime UTA lobbyist R&R Partners, which also has several Wasatch Front cities as clients. Dayton is a former deputy mayor and acting mayor of Salt Lake County.
Most of UTA's lobbyists declined to be interviewed, saying the agency asked them to direct questions to UTA.
But in an interview last year Zuhl acknowledged their influence has made a difference with lawmakers.
"I do believe we've had an impact in terms of how local and state officials have viewed UTA. That's part of what we do as advocates," said Zuhl who has 30 years of experience in state and local government. He helped push through sales tax increases for UTA in 2000 and 2006.
The transit authority hires lobbyists to address prospective legislation and win financial and political support for major rail expansion, driving job growth and reducing congestion, said Gerry Carpenter, UTA spokesman.
"The efforts being made are extensive and these individuals are appropriately compensated for the accomplishments they've helped us achieve," he said.
With the ability of lobbyists to give and bundle campaign contributions and influence legislation, public funding of lobbyists concentrates power in a few hands, said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
"You simply have a monopoly of very narrow interests which can control public debate and public policy," he said.
Those relationships don't pass the smell test for Roger Kehr, a Cottonwood Heights resident and sharp critic of UTA.
"Venn diagrams are basically circles of interest," he said, ticking off the names of lobbyists, politicians and others connected to the transit agency. "Each of them has a circle of interest, and if you look where all those circles of interest intersect, they intersect at one spot. That spot is UTA."
Contributing: John Daley