Legislation Aims to 'Clarify' Ethics Surrounding Lobbyist Gifts to Lawmakers

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

Step by tiny step over the last 20 years, Utah lawmakers have restricted the number of gifts and special events they accepted from the now-nearly-500 registered lobbyists.

Now comes SB97, Sen. Todd Weiler’s bill introduced into this general session that would clarify the definitions of special perks that the House speaker and Senate president can “exempt” from the current lobbyist regulations.

 

Weiler, R-Woods Cross, says his intent is not to increase the number of events senators and representatives can attend with the permission of their presiding officer.

Weiler’s SB97 may, at first blush, look innocent enough.

In just a few words it includes  “an event, a tour” into the definition of what the bosses of the House and Senate may exempt from lobbyist gift-giving regulations.

Currently, “meeting” is the only exempted event from the otherwise reportable items that a lobbyist must detail on his or her financial disclosures.

Further down in SB97, event “ means entertainment, a performance, a contest, or a recreational activity that an individual participates in or is a spectator at, including a sporting event, an artistic event, a play, a movie, dancing, or singing.”

Legislative drafting attorneys, who spoke to UtahPolicy on background, say the changes are aimed at clarifying what was confusing language in a memo that a former legislative attorney wrote when the exemptions were put into law several years ago.

This past summer, Weiler was deciding whether he could ethically accept a jeep tour down in Moab. He thought it would be a fun event for his family, plus educate him on Grand County tourism and desires to preserve wilderness-type land.

He asked both the state Elections Office and Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel if he could go.

“One said yes, one said no,” said Weiler. “I’m an attorney. I’m asking two other attorneys (in those offices). And we can’t agree on what is allowed and what isn’t. So I decided to file a bill to clarify.”

An aside here: Several years ago when the Legislature set up its own special, independent ethics committee, the then chair of that committee wondered out loud whether it would be a good idea to give the committee the power to informally hear questions on legislative ethical conduct, and give what would be an “advisory” opinion to the questioning lawmaker.

That way, over time, case law would be created, and lawmakers and the public would learn what is proper and what is not.

But the Legislature declined to give such advisory power to the Legislative Ethics Committee. So lawmakers seeking guidance go to the Elections Office, which maintains lobbyists financial records, and LRGC, their own staff.

When the House and Senate GOP leadership several years ago, under the push from former House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, decided to finally get serious about banning some of the lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, there was a lot of give and take – excuse my terminology – in working out how the bans and/or general transparency would work.

Some legislators quietly demanded an out – some way that the Senate president or House speaker could approve a freebee if members really, really wanted it. And the gift fit certain guidelines.

In fact, Clark told UtahPolicy at the time, the “exemption” was basically insisted upon by some senators.

So, the so-called boss-man exemption was put into the bill – legislators would be allowed to attend important meetings/conferences, paid for by a lobbyist, if the Senate president or House speaker approved of the event.

Clark, wanting to control the House more strictly, had a House Resolution passed that says if the speaker gives an exemption, that exemption must be made public in some form.

But the Senate – which has traditionally dragged its feet over lobbyist gift-giving – didn’t follow suit. While the Senate president could give exemptions, there is no requirement that such exemptions must be made public.

Now with SB97 the definition of those exemptions is “clarified,” but some may argue expanded.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, nor Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, will be giving many more lobbyist-gift exemptions than previously.

But it’s possible lawmakers denied an exemption could be unhappy with their leader.

It is of interest that Lockhart unseated Clark by one vote in 2010.

And Niederhauser reportedly had a very close presidential election in the fall of 2012, as well.

(Officially, the leadership elections are done by secret ballot and no one is supposed to know how the votes fall, but almost always someone in the separate GOP caucuses blabs about how close an election is.)

So, if the speaker or president turns down a request by a representative or senator – or more likely a group of legislators – to attend this or that event, then, depending on how petty the legislators may be, it could come back to bite the speaker or president in a future leadership race.

SB97 – Weiler had staff attorneys rewrite parts of the bill after inquiries by UtahPolicy -- reopens what was a rather narrow exemption for a representative or senator – or a group of lawmakers – to accept with presiding officer approval free entries to tours and other events.

Several years ago, basically under the radar, the lobbyist gift bill was amended to allow freebees to “government-sponsored” events.

That allowed the free tickets to the Utah-BYU football and basketball games played at the U. to be back in style, if the tickets are paid for by the government entity itself, not a registered lobbyist.

And the number of legislators sitting in the luxury suites went up.

Weiler’s amendments won’t allow other, private entities to pay for sporting tickets. So no free BYU-Utah football tickets at BYU’s home stadium, legislative attorneys tell UtahPolicy.

Years ago, when the U. provided free tickets or meals to legislators, U. lobbyists had to report such giving, along with the cost, on their financial filings.

But the amendment several years ago changed that. Now there is NO reporting at all of free tickets, meals or other freebees provided to legislators by “government entities.”

The U. regularly hosted a fee legislator and family night at one of the top women’s gymnastic meets. Along with football tickets, the U. routinely spent $15,000 to $20,000 a year entertaining lawmakers.

But under the current exemption statute, those gifts from higher education bosses are not reported anywhere, UtahPolicy is told.

So, as far as legislators are concerned when it comes to governor-sponsored events, it’s see no evil, hear no evil, report no evil.

Finally, Chief of Staff of the Senate Ric Cantrell tells UtahPolicy that even though the Senate president doesn’t have to report any freebees he allows his colleagues, Cantrell himself has kept track of the requests and, if approved, who attended.

Niederhauser has been rather a Scrooge. In his two years as president he has approved only one exempted event – last fall – for several senators to attend the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce lobbyist-paid-for transportation seminar at Snowbird.

House chief deputy Joe Pyrah said there has only been one exemption request in around two years, and that can be found on the House’s web site, as per the public rule.

So, under Weiler’s proposed changes his jeep trip (he didn’t take it) would be OK if Grand County or Moab City paid for it, but would require a Senate president exemption if it was paid for by an entity that lobbies the Legislature (like the Salt Lake Chamber).

Lawmakers, lobbyists and gifts – curiouser and curiouser.