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Utah lame ducks to fly to meeting in Chicago

Cost is $1,500 each; Stephens and Hillyard call the trips proper

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Five Utah legislators scheduled to attend a six-day conference in Chicago next week aren't coming back for the 2001 legislative session. They're retiring voluntarily or have lost their party's nomination in seeking re-election.

Yet they will attend the National Conference of State Legislatures' meeting in any case, at an average cost of $1,500 per legislator.

In addition, the Senate is picking up the airfare and a couple of nights lodging for former Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, who resigned from the Senate last month. Beattie is getting the national Republican "Legislator of the Year" Award at NCSL, and so it is appropriate for the state Senate to pay his way, said newly installed Senate President Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

House Speaker Marty Stephens and Hillyard say it is proper for the lame-duck legislators to go.

Sen. Howard Nielson, R-Provo, who is retiring this year but going to Chicago, agrees.

"I go for two reasons: First, I'm on a panel (at NCSL) that deals with human services and the federal government, and I need to participate. Secondly, I deal with those issues here in our interim (legislative study committees), and I bring things back to contribute," said Nielson.

Rep. Susan Koehn, R-Woods Cross, is also a lame duck, retiring this year. Koehn was scheduled to go to Chicago but backed out for private business reasons. "You have a commitment to the group. And I would have honored it. But I just couldn't take five days off."

However, Stephens, R-Farr West, says he's told House staff not to book any lame-duck representatives to national conferences after the November elections. "They won't be going to CSG (Council of State Governments) or to December meetings of NCSL. We've decided that," said Stephens.

CSG meets in San Diego and in Dearborn, Mich., this fall, Stephens said.

Hillyard, who has just taken office as president after the resignation of Beattie last month, said he hasn't discussed with other members of Senate leadership whether lame-duck senators should go to more out-of-state conferences.

"But we will. And I'll talk to each senator (who is retiring this year) about their conference commitments," said Hillyard. "If they believe they should go, that's fine."

Twenty-eight legislators — 15 House members and 13 senators — are scheduled to attend the NCSL conference in Chicago, which officially starts Saturday and runs through next Thursday. Not all Utah lawmakers going will attend for the full six days.

Lame ducks on the Chicago list provided by the House and Senate include Nielson and fellow Sens. Scott Howell, D-Granite, and Lorin Jones, R-Veyo; Reps. Lowell Nelson, R-Highland, and Mel Brown, R-Midvale.

This year's trip will cost state taxpayers about $43,000 for lawmakers. Legislative staff members also attend.

Nielson, a former member of Congress from the 3rd Congressional District, said he didn't take a trip this year to an earlier NCSL conference and won't be going to CSG in November. "I probably should have gone to some of those (other conferences). I've tried not to be too expensive to the Utah taxpayer."

Utah's dues to the NCSL run $92,000 this year; the state pays the CSG $74,700 to belong to that group. The two associations are training grounds for part-time lawmakers and their full-time staffs.

The conferences are typically the only out-of-state trips most lawmakers take at state expense during the year. While their airfare, meals, hotel rooms and conference registration fees are paid by the state, they don't receive their $100-a-day legislative pay for out-of-state travel.

Historically, the conferences are held in attractive tourist cities; occasionally in tourist meccas like Las Vegas, Hawaii and Orlando.

The Chicago agenda includes seminars on telecommunication reform, asset forfeiture, welfare reform, redistricting legislative districts after the 2000 Census and reworking presidential primaries — all issues Utah lawmakers will have to deal with.

But there's also a heavy social agenda, which typically includes lobbyist-sponsored golf tournaments, free meals and other entertainment.

This year Peter Yarrow, formerly of Peter, Paul & Mary, will give a talk on tolerance and respect.

In the early 1990s two Salt Lake TV stations traveled to summer conferences and photographed some Utah lawmakers playing golf with lobbyists. Some lobbyists attend the conferences and entertain Utah lawmakers.

The news reports caused hard feelings among some lawmakers — and a brief warning by then-Senate leaders to their members that no golf clubs should go on the trips.

No such warnings came this year. "These (legislators) are responsible people and they don't need any word from me how to behave in the proper fashion," said Stephens.

Legislators "are given two-year assignments, and it is their personal decision whether they go or not. Several House members not coming back, like Reps. Nora Stephens (R-Bountiful) and Blake Chard (R-Layton) chose not to attend" the summer out-of-state conferences, Stephens said, even though they were appointed to NCSL committees and could have gone.

Chard said he didn't know where "I would be" in July, so decided not to go. He lost the GOP nomination for a Davis County Commission seat in the June 27 primary — "I could have been campaigning this month" — and is still waiting to hear if he will be nominated to head state government's Youth Corrections Department.

Said Chard, "I'm ambivalent" about leaving office and attending such conventions. Being a lame duck "played a part in my decision" not to go. "I see no great harm in going, but because I'm not coming back I saw no big push for me to go, either."

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com