Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Journeying to the Hinterlands

Who says how the Utah Legislature operates doesn’t change for the better over time.

It does, in some areas.

But the change can be agonizingly slow.

Since I often critique the Legislature (thus comes the word “criticize”), when legislators and their leaders do something right, I should take note of that, as well.

So carve this column in stone and hang it from the inner corridors of legislative power in the Capitol: It’s good the Legislature is going back on summer drives, and good how it is all being paid for, too.

Later this month the Legislature is restarting what was an annual summer event: Legislators (often with their spouses) are taking trips to the far-flung areas of Utah to learn about those folks’ unique challenges.

And, hopefully, the bulk of the legislators who live in suburbia along the Wasatch Front will see citizens’ successes and struggles; and maybe learn how to help them or just get out of the way.

These trips started, I’m guessing, in the late 1980s or early 1990s and continued most summers for some years.

I went along as the Deseret News political editor for most of them, covering the events.

The trips started, as many things did in those days, with lobbyists footing part of the bill.

The legislative leaders – being conservatives – didn’t want to use taxpayer money to pick up dinner checks, event tickets (like the Shakespeare Festival), horseback rides or other expenses.

So the idea was let “private enterprise” pick up most of the bills.

As each different geographic area of the state tried to outdo the previous years’ festivities, the bills got larger and larger, the events more elaborate, time-consuming and expansive.

And so the Senators and Representatives from these areas started to do outside fundraising – as the designated hosts.

Finally, the local business folks/lobbyists rebelled at what was being asked financially from them – and a fundraising letter from several lawmakers leaked to the press.

That led to some red faces among legislators.

Then the Great Recession hit – at the same time that lawmakers were coming up on returning to areas they had already visited before.

And so the summer trips stopped.

I always thought the trips beneficial – urban legislators and many members of the legislative staff (which were hard put upon to organize these events along with the local private and state manager hosts) – got to learn about outlying areas of the state.

But local colleges and universities were often pressed to provide “free” facilities for some of the meetings, “free” transportation and such.

And when – to be on the safe side and perhaps to make a point – those college bosses filed lobbyist disclosure reports showing tens of thousands of dollars in staff time/space rental donated to the lawmakers’ visits – well we reporters were glad to publish those, as well.

Anyway, the public presentation of legislators eating fat steaks provided by lobbyists in distant lands – a kind of vacation atmosphere – didn’t sit so well, even if the ultimate result of lawmakers learning important stuff in the hinder lands was valuable.

After nearly a decade hiatus, legislative leaders decided to start up the summer trips again this September.

But they are going about differently.

The state will pick up the tabs – as it should have all along.

Lawmakers’ two-day trip to south-eastern-central Utah will be packed – with legislators being given presentations on the buses as they travel.

Early starts, box lunches, quick dinners and late to bed.

They will be paid their daily legislative salary only if they are on the buses to hear the locals’ presentations.

There is a short river trip outside of Moab – but the state will pay the cost only if the lawmakers attend the other events that day.

Tourism is important to Moab – crucial – and the locals wanted the legislators to see why so many come to their town.

Besides, there is the chance a legislator could fall out of the boat and be drenched – that alone would be worth a picture.

I won’t be going with them this year – there is no room at the inn. (Because it is still high tourism time in Moab, where the trippers are staying overnight, some lawmakers will literally have to double up in a single room – I’m not even going to consider that, a bad mental picture – “Good night Greg.” “Good night Wayne.” “Cute Pittsburgh Steeler jammies!”)

Besides the information provided on these trips, it was also a time for lawmakers to rub shoulders in a casual setting with one another – getting to know each other and spouses.

One of the great partisan problems in Congress these days is that the members don’t know each other well – many of the 535 members don’t reside in D.C. but come home each weekend.

There are folks in the 435-member House who actually haven’t met other members face-to-face.

Even the 100-member U.S. Senate is not as collegial as it once was.

Now, there are only 29 Utah state senators, just 75 House members.

And long-time Utah lawmakers do get to know each other pretty well.

But I always enjoyed (yes, it was strange but true) these summer trips because I got to know the legislators and their families better.

And I believed that helped me write about their political lives more fully.

So, have a good trip you Utah lawmakers.

And watch where you step. Rural Utah can be a dangerous place.