The Utah House will open its Rules Committee this year, while the Senate will follow a new plan of "sifting" vital legislation.

House members will pay for their own caucus lunches during the session, disappointing accommodating lobbyists who want to pick up the tab. Senators will let lobbyists buy their lunches as usual.Are the two bodies moving farther apart on so-called "government reform" matters?

Probably not.

House GOP leaders said they will try the open Rules Committee approach while the Senate tries Senate President Lane Beattie's bill-sifting alternative and decide - after the 45-day session that starts in a month - which is best.

Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said he's been worried by so many other things he hasn't given a lot of attention to who pays for senators' twice-weekly caucus lunches.

"I suppose we could change (the lunches), but that hasn't come up and so as of now we'll go with what we've done before," he said Wednesday.

House Republicans held a closed-door meeting Wednesday to decide if they would open their Rules Committee. The irony wasn't lost.

"We have to close the meeting, leaders said, to have a `free' discussion of opening a closed meeting. Sounds like us, doesn't it," joked House Appropriations Chairman John Valentine, R-Orem.

House Speaker-elect Mel Brown said his caucus feels just opening Rules, which has traditionally been a closed, secret meeting, is the best way to let the public see firsthand the House's "sifting" process. "Because it will be an open meeting, we think that is a better solution than the Senate's," said Brown, R-Midvale.

Beattie proposed several months ago - and will implement in the upcoming session - a new process. Under his plan, bills will be assigned to a standing committee by him (not the Rules Committee). But his will be a procedural ruling; he'll follow the advice of legislative attorneys as to which committee hears which bill, based on subject matter.

After committees have acted, the bill will come back to the secretary of the Senate (not the Rules Committee). As the session winds down and more important bills must be debated by the 29-member body, the Senate majority leader - after consulting the minority Democratic leader - will make motions to move bills to the top of the calendar for consideration.

Beattie says his plan is best because "responsibility lies with the president" for any bill not heard or not heard in a timely manner. One vital asset of the secret rules committees - from the legislator's viewpoint - was that lobbyists and others interested in bills couldn't find out who really killed it in rules, and so couldn't blame any legislator.

"Now everyone will know who to blame - if a bill is held it will be me, if a bill isn't moved to the top of the calendar in the final (legislative days), any senator can make a motion from the floor and we'll vote on it. If it fails, the whole Senate, in public session, killed it," Beattie has said before.

House Majority Leader-elect Christine Fox, R-Lehi, said House members decided to pay $7.50 per lunch themselves for several reasons. "We are paid $35 a day per diem - and that is supposed to go in part for meals while we're in session. And some groups felt that if they didn't have the money to pay for a caucus lunch they weren't listened to by legislators. I don't agree with that feeling; I can't remember a time when we turned away some group who wanted to talk to us" during one of the twice-weekly caucus lunches.

Still, some eyebrows were raised two years ago when Geneva Steel officials bought senators' lunch the last day of the session. Later that night, senators - after some heated debate - extended Geneva's sales tax break on new equipment worth millions of dollars to the steel producer.

The lunch and the votes had nothing to do with each other, it was just coincidence, senators said. But the media and some reform groups seemed to delight in the coincidence, and some House members said senators were just asking for trouble by keeping up the practice of lobbyists hosting their lunches.