clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

House panel OKs ban on lobby gifts

Rep. Jordan Tanner has decided to take his yearly pilgrimage to the altar banning legislative gifts once again.

But at least this year's trip will be a short one.Monday morning, Tanner, R-Provo, pushed his new legislator/public official gift ban bill out of a House committee. And he did it with only one personal insult against him. Rep. David Zolman, R-Riverton, said Tanner, who drives a Mercedes (and thus must be rich), is trying to decide what lawmakers who drive Hyundais (and are poor) can do.

But the bill won't be heard by the House before Wednesday, the scheduled day when all bills are sent to "sifting,"where bills are prioritized, and then brought forward by the House Rules Committee only with the approval of leaders.

Thus, Tanner likely won't be lucky enough to see his bill debated in the House or Senate this session.

Ever since the Legislature first adopted a lobbyist reporting law in 1991, year in and year out the reports show upward of $100,000 peryear is spent by lobbyists entertaining Utah's 104 part-time lawmakers.

But because lobbyists don't have to report a lawmaker's name with a gift acceptance unless the lobbyist spends more than $50 in one day on the lawmaker, few legislators' names appear on lobbyist reports.

Accordingly, citizens don't know who took what from whom.

Tanner's bill doesn't address lobbyist reporting directly, but it takes a different tack. It would make a lawmaker subject to House rules if he or she accepts any gift more than $50. The bill then goes to great length defining what a gift is and what a gift is not.

However, criminal penalties would apply to the governor and other state elected and appointed officials who accept gifts worth more than $50.

Tanner said he "bent over backward" in saying what a gift isn't, thus allowing acceptance of many of the traditional perks lawmakers receive.

Rep. Perry Buckner, D-Oquirrh, said, "You did back flips, not bent over backward" in providing exceptions.

For example, legislators could still attend the University of Utah's yearly chili bash (exempted as a "gift"), could still accept BYU football tickets (exempted) and, with the approval of the Legislative Management Committee, couldattend any kind of event that provides entertainment or food.

What lawmakers probably couldn't do anymore is accept expensive rounds of golf, dinners and tickets to the Utah Jazz. To the displeasure of some GOP House leaders, Tanner's bill also doesn't address "bundling," a process where a group of lobbyists get together and buy a ticket whose face value is greater than $50, give it to a lawmaker and then don't report the lawmaker's name because individually no lobbyist gave more than $50 to the lawmaker.

Who is going to enforcethe new prohibitions, the press? Zolman asked. "No," Tanner responded, saying his bill, like any law, would be enforced if and when violations were found.

"I find it interesting that leadership in either party" has not co-sponsored or endorsed the bill, Zolman said.

"I didn't ask," Tanner replied.

Actually, Tanner was brought before the twice-weekly private GOP leadership meetings several times to discuss his measure. And he put off hearing the bill in the committee he chairs to give Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, time to draft changes to the separate lobbyist reporting law.

But in the end, Tanner said, he and Beattie didn't agree on what to do, so Tanner decided to run his own bill.

Beattie said Monday that if Tanner had gone ahead with his original idea, that he probably won't try to amend the lobbyist reporting law.

"I'll just see what happens to his (Tanner's) bill," the president said.

The usual groups support Tanner, as they've supported almost every government reform bill in recent years - the League of Women Voters, United We Stand Utah and Utah Common Cause.

"I'm a citizen lobbyist," said Claire Geddes of United We Stand Utah. "I don't have an expense account."

Three hours at a Jazz game with a legislator is something she can't afford. She doesn't ask for a level playing field. "I know we'll never have that. But this is a citizen access bill," for it would, to some extent, get some legislators away from high-paid lobbyists for part of the year.

Cassie Dippo of Utah Common Cause said Tanner left too many loopholes in his bill. If lawmakers reject it, she said her group would be back in the 1999 Legislature with its own measure. "It would be a not-a-soda bill - they could take nothing" from lobbyists, Dippo said.

Rep. Bryan Holladay, R-West Jordan, said he opposed a similar bill several years ago, but now supports Tanner's effort. That's because as gift bills are voted down year after year, all that is left "is the insult" of people thinking that legislators aren't taking care of business properly and don't listen to regular citizens.

While Buckner said his constituents regularly tell him he's up at the Capitol to make laws, "not go to Jazz games and dinners," Holladay said no constituent has ever accused him of that.

Tanner quoted a number of newspaper editorials urging lawmakers to ban all gifts to themselves, and noted that poll after poll - including a January Deseret News survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates - show overwhelming citizen support to ban all gifts to lawmakers.