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Capitol lobbyists cutting back
They are spending less and spending it — well, differently

SHARE Capitol lobbyists cutting back
They are spending less and spending it — well, differently

A clear change seems to be coming up on Utah's Capitol Hill -- less money is being spent entertaining the state's 104 part-time legislators during their annual 45-day session.

And the money is being spent differently.Instead of dozens of Utah Jazz tickets and expensive individual meals regularly coming to some lawmakers, the new trend is hosting large receptions -- some very costly, but when broken out per legislator they're just your run-of-the-mill prepared dinner or lunch.

True, the 1999 Legislature could be an exception to the lobbyist-gift-giving rule, for several things happened this year to change the lobbyist/lawmaker dynamic. Whether that trend continues remains to be seen.

First, the Utah Jazz started its abbreviated season Feb. 5, eliminating the tickets that could have been purchased for January's home games.

Second, as lobbyist Blaze Wharton, a former state senator, pointed out, the 1999 session didn't have many "big, hot issues" where lobbyists had to work hard getting their points across to 104 legislators.

Also, said Wharton, the Republican and Democratic party caucus lunches during the session "have become institutionalized -- that is, legislators regularly attend, and so they are only available for lunches (with lobbyists) three days a week now."

Fourth, newly installed House Speaker Marty Stephens and other members of House leadership voluntarily decided to take no event tickets or meals from lobbyists during the session unless those items were offered to all House members together.

A number of House members seemed to follow Stephens' lead, although current law makes it impossible to determine from the reports who did and didn't receive gifts or who gave them out.

Registered lobbyists who spend more than $75 during the session entertaining legislators have to file a report. But they only have to name legislators who took a gift, meal, event ticket or other freebie if it costs more than $50 in a 24-hour period. Otherwise the amount is just listed with no names attached.

(The $50 naming limit has lead to some highjinks, detailed below).

Not surprisingly, a number of lobbyists have become adept at entertaining legislators for less than $50 a day -- since few legislators want their names listed on lobbyist reports and thus made public.

Interviewed during the session, former House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, now a lobbyist in the upscale lobbying firm of Foxley, Pignanelli and Lyon, said that lobbying has changed in the 1990s.

While some lobbyists still try to gain influence by becoming personal friends with legislators -- Pignanelli called them the "schmoozing lobbyists" -- others are taking what Pignanelli calls a more professional route.

"They don't provide Jazz tickets or a lot of meals, they just try to provide good information," Pignanelli said.

An example of the change can be found in Pignanelli's own partner, firm founder Doug Foxley.

Foxley's report on lobbying the 1999 Legislature shows he spent $24.56 -- the cost of a couple of meals with legislators.

Compare that to Foxley's 1993 lobbyist filing -- where he spent $1,005 during that session, most of it coming in $90-per-seat Utah Jazz tickets given to lawmakers. During the 1993 Legislature, Foxley spent $2,840 entertaining legislators, his report that year shows.

This past session Pignanelli and the third partner in the group, Nancy Lyon, also a former Utah House member, reported not spending a dime entertaining legislators.

But that doesn't mean lawmakers don't get Jazz tickets from lobbyists anymore.

Wharton and two of his partners, former state Sen. Paul Rogers and Daniel Hartman, who now make up several principals in the powerful Tetris Group lobbying firm, filed reports that show each man spent money on "legislative entertainment" several times during February.

The dates of the "entertainment" expenses show they came on Feb. 5, 15, 18, 20, 22 and 26 -- the same days the Utah Jazz had home games in the Delta Center.

"Yes, those were Jazz games (where Tetris provided tickets to legislators). That's usually what we mean when we put down 'entertainment,' on our reports," Wharton said Friday.

But the cost of the tickets, ranging from $70 to $92, were split between the three lobbyists, so the $23.33 or $30.37 expense for each game didn't hit the $50 reporting trigger, and no legislator's name accompanied the reports.

While Wharton acknowledged the costs were split, he said he didn't know why. "I didn't put the reports together," he added.

It appears the three lobbyists also split the cost of some meals that, if not divided by three, would have totaled more than the $50 threshold for listing the lawmakers on their lobbyist reports.

The actions of Rogers, Wharton and Hartman appear to be an example of the new trend of "bundling" gifts to legislators so the lawmakers' names aren't listed publicly.

Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, had a bill in the 1999 session that would have required that when two or more lobbyists went in together to buy an expensive gift for a legislator -- and the sharing of the cost dropped each lobbyist's contribution to under $50 -- then the legislator's name must still be listed.

Tanner's bill passed a House committee but the House Rules Committee wouldn't let the bill out for a vote by the whole House.

Another Tanner bill, which would have would have banned tickets and meals costing more than $50, died at the tail-end of the 1999 session.

The Senate amended the proposal by placing 16 exemptions to the reporting law. Tanner argued that the changes would have gutted an already weak law. And if the Senate version had passed, most of the $46,000 spent entertaining legislators during the 1999 session would never have been reported, for it went for meals.

Some lawmakers' names were listed in other lobbyists' reports filed this week.

State Farm Insurance was a major sponsor of the U.S. National Skating Championship finals held in the Delta Center from Feb. 10 through 13.

State Farm spent $1,055 giving tickets to Sens. Lane Beattie, Lyle Hillyard, Al Mansell, Peter Kundson, Leonard Blackham, Robert Montgomery and their spouses. Also getting tickets were Sen. Beverly Ann Evans, Rep. Bill Hickman and his wife, Rep. John Swallow and his wife and Rep. Mel Brown. The price of the tickets ranged from $55 to $75 each.

One final sidelight. In the 1998 Legislature the Salt Lake Organizing Committee spent $1,518 giving hundreds of Olympic pins to legislators. Racked by an ethical scandal as the 1999 Legislature began, SLOC was much more low-key this past session. It's new lobbyist, Bill Shaw, gave out just $60 in Olympic pins to 12 legislators during the 1999 Legislature.