Some Utah legislators are upset over news reports and public opinion polls that show them in an unfavorable light, and while many do think some kind of reform may be needed in lobbyist disclosure laws or in how they conduct their official business, they also think they haven't been fairly treated in the mass media.
House Republicans met Wednesday afternoon in an open caucus to discuss reform matters and give a little heat back to the group they think is bringing it to them - local reporters."As chairman of the (House) Ethics Committee, I say to the media: Put up or shut up, all this innuendo (about legislative ethics) is causing destruction," said Rep. Ray Short, R-Holladay.
House Majority Leader Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, started quiet discussions during the 1993 Legislature about some kinds of reforms in 1994. Later this spring came a poll conducted by the Salt Lake Tribune that showed, among other things, a large percentage of Utahns think legislators take "bribes" from lobbyists and others who try to influence their votes.
A week or so later a Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed that most Utahns - 71 percent - think it inappropriate that legislators routinely accept free lunches and other items from lobbyists and special-interest groups. The polls and other news accounts about legislators' activities have some lawmakers angry, saying they've been unfairly painted by the press.While a number of House Republicans took the opportunity to criticize the media during Wednesday's meeting - Rep. Clark Reber, R-South Jordan, even suggested if lawmakers have to disclose who buys them lunch, local reporters should do likewise - others said regardless of polls or press reports there is an unsettled feeling among their constituents about how the Legislature does business.
"Not one of us ran for this office to get a free lunch," said Rep. Norm Nielsen, R-Orem. "But the other side of the question is valid. Why, then, do we accept free lunches (from lobbyists)? We get paid a per-diem expense for that very purpose, to buy our own lunch."
At the heart of the question is the current lobbyist disclosure law. If a registered lobbyist spends more than $100 in a three-month period on legislators, he must keep track of the expenses and report a total amount spent - only a gross number. If he spends more than $100 a day on an individual lawmaker, he must list the lawmaker by name in his report and say what the event was.
Over the past two years the law has been in effect, few lawmakers' names have been listed, even though, in total, much money is spent entertaining legislators.
For example, nearly $100,000 was spent entertaining lawmakers during their 45-day 1993 session. Yet few legislators were listed by name. It appears from the lobbyists' reports - which are not very detailed - that upwards of $9,000 was spent on Jazz tickets for lawmakers during the session. But a Jazz ticket costs less than $100, so few lawmakers' names were listed as receiving them.
Some lobbyists did list every legislator they spent money on, even if it was less than $100.
Many House Republicans, after complaining about how they'd been unfairly criticized by the press, ended their comments by saying they didn't care if the $100 level was lowered to zero dollars - that is, spend a dime on a legislator and list the lawmaker by name in the public report.
While Stephens has not yet set a dollar amount, some Republicans are talking about lowering the $100 level to $25. Thus, a legislator could still take a lunch or low-cost dinner from a lobbyist and not find his name listed in lobbyists' reports - and perhaps in the newspaper.
"I argue for full disclosure, every dime," said Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, the author of the original 1991 lobbyist disclosure law. "Full disclosure means more accountability; more accountability means better, more open, government. That is the way for full confidence (by the public)."
House Democrats are already on record as saying they favor a zero dollar reporting level. Later, Republicans will discuss whether the now-secret Rules Committee should be opened along with other reform measures Stephens and others are considering.