Do news reporters have hidden political agendas? Do they report stories in such a way as to influence lawmakers to vote in favor of certain legislation and to defeat other bills?

Sen. David Watson, R-St. George, thinks so, and apparently so do most members of the Utah Senate. In a voice vote, senators Monday passed an amendment that would require anyone in the media to register as lobbyists if in the course of their reporting, they "directly influence the passage, defeat, amendment or postponement of legislative or executive action."As opponents to the amendment noted, the law would apply to editorial writers as well as news reporters, serving to chill the debate on public issues.

The amendment came during debate on HB14, which would require greater disclosure of gifts by lobbyists to lawmakers.

But the proposal turned into a media-bashing frenzy with lawmakers standing to lambaste news reporters for their biased reporting.

"Is there a direct desire to affect legislation? You better believe it," Watson said.

Watson said reporters have been writing stories about lobbyist disclosure, conflicts of interest by lawmakers and opening rules committees as part of an agenda to protect their profession.

"Openness is how they get their job done," Watson said. "We are not open enough for them to get their job done."

A media attorney Monday said the bill is not only "dumb" but clearly illegal.

"Any scheme that would require licensing of reporters in connection with the performance of their duties is unconstitutional on its face," said Jeff Hunt, attorney for the Utah Society of Professional Journalists.

"Besides that, it's a dumb idea. The whole premise behind opening up the Legislature - as the sponsor of this amendment says - is so reporters can do their job of getting information out to the public about what the Legislature is doing. Reporters have a constitutionally protected right to report news to the public," he said.

"Just because that information might be embarrassing or annoying to the Legislature, as it appears to be in this case, doesn't give the Legislature some kind of authority to sanction reporters. It seems that the intent of the amendment is to punish reporters for doing their job. Time and time again, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that punish reporters for telling the truth."

Disclosure of lobbyist gifts to legislators has been controversial and much-hated by legislators since it first passed in 1991. In fact, Watson suggested that there be no limit on the gifts given to lawmakers and that it be the lawmakers who should be responsible for reporting what they receive.

"Take whatever you want, if you have the guts," he said. "Take it if you are willing to take the repercussions."

A narrow vote in the Senate in 1991 almost moved the reporting level to $15. But the amendment failed and lobbyists were left with reporting a legislator by name only if more than $100 was spent entertaining a legislator in a 24-hour period.

This year's bill would have lowered the amount to $15. But the Senate Monday bumped the limit back up to $50 - the threshold at which lobbyists would have to report.

That is a huge loophole. Even though more than $180,000 was spent entertaining the 104 legislators in 1994 - $1,730 per legislator - Utah Common Cause reports that less than 3 percent of that total was connected to a legislator by name.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the media and legislators has deteriorated. Over the past several years, two TV stations followed legislators to national conferences and took pictures of sev-eral legislators golfing with lobbyists.

While the golfing was perfectly legal, the legislators were embarrassed. This last year, legislative leaders let it be known that lawmakers attending the national legislative conferences shouldn't be golfing, and no attending legislators took their clubs.

Legislators continue to claim that so-called government reform items, like lobbyist disclosure, are part of a media-driven agenda, that their constituents don't care about it. Yet repeated public opinion polls show citizens overwhelmingly in favor of greater disclosure by lobbyists.

A Deseret News/KSL poll conducted earlier this year by Dan Jones & Associates shows a great majority of Utahns think it inappropriate for legislators to take gifts from lobbyists and only 9 percent of Utahns think the current lobbyist disclosure law with the $100 reporting level is adequate. By far, most Utahns favored greater lobbyist disclosure.

Before last November's elections, the Deseret News sent questionnaires to all legislative can-didates. Most of the 16 eventual Senate winners returned the questionnaires. Of those, 13 said they would vote for greater lobbyist disclosure of gifts to lawmakers, should they get the chance.

Those promising to vote for greater disclosure included: Sens. Dave Buhler, R-Salt Lake; John Holmgren, R-Bear River; Al Mansell, R-Sandy; Ed Mayne, D-West Valley; LeRay McAllister, R-Orem; Alarik Myrin, R-Altamont; Millie Peterson, D-West Valley; Steve Poulton, R-Holladay; David Steele, R-West Point; Robert Steiner, D-Salt Lake; Howard Stephenson, R-Draper; Nathan Tanner, R-Ogden; and Blaze Wharton, D-Murray.

The Senate voted 26-2 in favor of HB14 with the amendments. Those amendments passed by the Senate must be agreed to by the House. There will likely be plenty of negotiating on those points during the final two days of the session.