Bill Would Remedy Legislator Lunchtime Dilemma

You know the old saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Well, that’s not necessarily the case with Utah’s 104 part-time legislators.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, has introduced a resolution that would allow for the staff legislative offices to buy a lawmaker a meal if that lawmaker is working with a staff member through what normally would be a mealtime – breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Don’t know if it includes snacks.

You can read SJR11 here. It contains a provision where the legislator can pay for that working meal himself, if he wishes. But it doesn’t require reimbursement by the lawmaker.

Hillyard tells UtahPolicy that folks are misunderstanding his bill and what really happens today with working lawmakers.

Currently, a legislator who is attending an authorized meeting can keep his meal receipt and put in for the Senate or House to reimburse him.

But if a legislator who lives far away, like Hillyard, drives down for a day long meeting, the meeting must adjourn for a hour or so for the lawmaker to go buy a lunch – since the staff offices can’t legally provide his lunch.

“It is a huge waste of time. I’d rather just work through the lunch” and eat something along the way, says Hillyard.

Now, with his resolution the staff office can buy his lunch, or he can pay for the meal, and keep on working and not have to adjourn.

It used to be that all lawmakers, both parties, both the House and Senate, during the 45-day general session used to have their caucus lunches paid for by a lobbyist or special interest group.

That lobbyist/group would then be allowed to make a presentation to their captive lawmaker audience for 15 minutes or so while lawmakers gobbled down the “free” lunch.

But that process was changed maybe a decade ago in the House, and later in the Senate. All legislators now pay for their caucus lunches themselves, either out of pocket or out of their campaign accounts.

Caucus lunches are two days a week – Tuesday and Thursday – for much of the session, almost daily the final week or so.

The other three days a week legislators are usually invited to a “free” lunch, hosted by some special interest group, most often catered in the Capitol Rotunda, but also sometimes held at a downtown hotel.

Lawmakers changed the lobbyist reporting rules some time ago to exempt from reporting events where all lawmakers are invited to, or a specified group of lawmakers.

So we no longer know how much money is being spent on legislators “free” lunches or meals paid for by special interest groups.

The change was made, in part, said legislators, because when a large group of lawmakers are feted there is no undue influence being made.

At the same time, lobbyist freebies were drastically reduced and many historical gifts to legislators were eliminated.

The lawmaker meal reimbursement for an authorized meeting was also changed. Hillyard said those meal reimbursements are capped, something like $12 or so for a lunch.

Almost every general session one or two legislators introduce amendments to lobbyist/lawmaker reporting rules, like Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is doing this session with his HB234, which would allow lawmakers to destroy “publications” that lobbyists and special interest groups keep sending lawmakers, and they don’t want.

Now comes Hillyard – the current longest serving legislator – and his free “working meal” proposal.

“In those situations I usually don’t eat lunch,” said Hillyard, but if he wants staff to work through such a lunchtime, then the staff doesn’t get time to eat, either.

“Now we can just keep working with our staffs” during a lunch time “and not have to stop to go out and eat.”

Since the legislative staff offices – Office of Legislature Research and General Counsel, Office of Fiscal Analyst, Office of Legislative Auditor General, are funded with taxpayer dollars, if a legislator’s “work mealtime” qualifies for a meal, then it would be taxpayers picking up the cost.

Now, it is not believed that the legislator and staff would be spending much on such a meal – since they probable would be working out of the staff offices on Capitol Hill and would be either buying a meal at the Capitol cafeteria or having something brought in.

Still, if adopted, the legislator would get a free lunch – one that would not be tied to a special interest asking the legislator for something.

What IS NOT in the resolution is what the legislative staffer is supposed to eat during this meal – sounds like the staffer would be buying his or her own lunch or eating something they brought from home.