Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Legislative Travel Plans Spark Remembrances of Road Trips Past

On the road again

Just can't wait to get on the road again

The life I love is making music with my friends

And I can't wait to get on the road again

                                   — Willie Nelson

Yes, the Utah Legislature – after a decade of not traveling the state each summer – will be on the road again come August.

Legislative leaders have decided to reinstitute the annual summer fact-gathering visits to various parts of Utah, which were a staple of legislative service until just before the Great Recession.

Economic (and tax-gathering) times are better these days, and there has been so many turnovers in the Utah House and Senate that most lawmakers weren’t even in office when the annual summer trips were taking place.

So there is a need to educate them about the different challenges and needs of those around the state, especially areas off of the Wasatch Front, legislative leaders say.

The exact locales to be visited this coming August have not been decided, leaders tell UtahPolicy, although they are likely to be in southern Utah.

At least $64,600 has been set aside in the Legislature’s budget for the trip, but since it will take place over the monthly interim day many of those costs would have occurred anyway.

Jonathon Ball, head of the Legislature’s Fiscal Analyst Office, says the state will pick up hotel, travel and meal costs, which will be an extra expense for legislators living along the Wasatch Front.

But lawmakers’ pay would be incurred anyway for the regular interim meetings.

There is a long history to the Legislature’s summer statewide traveling, much of it good, a little not so much.

I was there from the beginning, and memory (which can be at times flawed) tells me:

It all started a long time ago, when the Legislature’s higher education interim committee, which had been going down to Cedar City for one meeting each summer decided to hold a joint session with the public education interim committee.

The two large committees made up almost half of the 104-member Legislature.

And guess what was happening in Cedar City each summer?

Yep, the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

As the then-leaders heard more and more grousing from non-education committee members about the good times their colleagues were to have in Cedar City, an idea was born.

Why not have the whole Legislature go down to Cedar City for one month’s interim meetings?

Lobbyists – always friendly to legislators – quickly got in the act. They would buy theater tickets for legislators and their spouses, maybe host a dinner, lunch or breakfast.

Hey, this could be fun! And not cost taxpayers anything. What an idea!

Well, the grumpy media got wind and soon there were complaints – complaints that only grew over the years as each summer legislators from far-flung Utah places had to come up with hosting money, transportation, things to do and so on.

It didn’t take long to get a bit out of control, as summer after summer local residents/businesses and lobbyists tried to outdo the trip from the summer before.

Yes, I and others learned a great deal on these summer trips – I mean, I’d never been to the petrified forest state park before, either. I didn’t even know there was one. Neither did many of the legislators, even though they funded it each year.

At first the trip was a big deal. Most of the SLC-based TV stations sent reporters and camera people.

The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News (my master) sent two or more reporters.

The locals got to give their presentations to a captive legislative group. And legislators did get a pretty good feel for the challenges rural Utahns were facing.

But, as these things do, problems arose.

First off, the one-two day trips, while staying officially interim day events, bled over into weekend stays by legislators and their spouses.

Even more time to be entertained by lobbyists.

And the costs and disruption to normal activities in those areas went up.

Then, wouldn’t you know, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt – seeing a good media opportunity – got into the act.

When lawmakers went to Cache Valley, Leavitt said he wanted to address them – kind of like a summer State of the State address.

Legislative leaders said OK. The Logan Tabernacle was chosen (leading to some protests that lawmakers were officially meeting in a religious building).

All the TV stations showed up, and a few carried the governor’s speech live.

Well, that bummed out some legislators. This was supposed to be their time, not his.

So Leavitt was not-so-quietly told he would not be invited to future summer legislative trips.

Summer meetings continued for a few years and then, when it came time to visit the Uintah Basin, a couple of legislators made a big mistake.

Charged with organizing and gathering outside funds to pay for the hosting, a fund raising letter was sent out to lobbyists and organizations that had financially supported such trips in the past.

And, tired of getting hit up for money, a few lobbyists leaked the letter to the press.

The letter, I recalled, asked for contributions of $500 each – not a big amount, but the cost of the trips kept rising each year as they became more and more elaborate.

A lot of complaining. Some legislators were embarrassed. And so on.

Then there was jealousy. (Isn’t there always?)

A trip to south central Utah and Bryce Canyon found the most popular side-trip were guided horseback trips inside and outside of the national park.

But not all lawmakers and their spouses could go – not enough horses and guides.

The fast-thinking legislators got the horsey slots, the slower thinkers, (and there are some in the Legislators), didn’t.

More unhappiness.

And the media were getting tired of it all – TV coverage lagged, or just went away, leaving a few poorly-dressed newspaper reporters tagging along.

Finally, the Legislature had visited all the geographic areas (even Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties, where most of the legislators lived, anyway).

Leaders didn’t see the need to start the visits all over again in Cedar City. So it all ended rather quietly.

A few years later, instead of the mid-summer trips around the state many legislators just went to out-of-state conferences of their professional organizations – like CSG, NCSL and ALEC.

Lawmakers didn’t meet in interim at all in July or August, depending on the national groups’ summer schedules.

But now the summer visits are back. And all is good again.

In fact, the Legislature will not take any summer months off this year – meetings every month, with the visits coming in August.

Happy Trails Again!