Should legislators take gifts from lobbyists? If so, at what value? And who reports these gifts to the public?
While it's unlikely any changes to current lobbyist gift reporting law will pass this session, a House committee debated the matter for some time Wednesday morning, only to take no action.
Later Wednesday, House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, whose gift-ban bill was not heard by the Judiciary Committee due to time constraints, tried to lift his bill to the House floor for debate.
But on basically a party line vote, Republicans refused to hear Becker's bill — as well as another bill that also dealt with lobbyist gift-giving to lawmakers. Becker's attempt Wednesday afternoon to lift the bills for debate failed, 44-27.
"People believe there is a problem and we should deal with that perception," Becker said before being voted down.
In the morning committee hearing, Rep. Chad Bennion, R-Murray, actually got a full-disclosure bill substituted into a bill by Rep. Joe Murray, R-Ogden. Murray wanted to lower the reporting level for "intangible" gifts — such as Jazz tickets — from $50 to $25. But Bennion said that was just "tinkering" with an issue that should be settled now.
Bennion's idea is to remove any monetary limit on gifts lawmakers can take, but to have all gifts, no matter how small, be reported by lobbyists along with the name of the lawmaker who took the gift. Oddly enough, Bennion voted against Becker's attempt to lift his own bill from the committee.
A number of lawmakers said there is a perception problem out there — that most lawmakers are taking a number of gifts and that those gifts influence their actions. Several committee members blamed the press for reporting on the current gifts lawmakers accept from lobbyists, thus fueling the public's incorrect perceptions.
"It hurts me personally," said Murray, when he walks his district to hear constituents say they think legislators are on the take.
Chriss Meecham, who teaches business ethics at a local college, said she's found that "business ethics" is an oxymoron — kind of like the idea of an "honest politician." That doesn't have to be, she said, if more care is taken, tougher laws adopted.
"We believe that all gifts are inappropriate" for lawmakers to take, said Cassie Dippo of Utah Common Cause, a citizen action group. Residents wouldn't stand "for the judiciary, a jury, to go to a Jazz game or to a meal with the defendant" in a case, she said. "Legislators do similar things" as a judge and jury. "You give tax exemptions" and take other actions that affect the lives of citizens. "Lobbyists provide valuable information" to lawmakers, but they can do that without providing any gifts, she said. However, Bennion's full disclosure "is completely unworkable" without a small reporting cap, like $5, or lobbyists would be hard-pressed to account for every piece of candy or pencil given to lawmakers.
Bennion said he is amenable to further changing his full disclosure bill to make it more workable.
But the chances of that are slim. There's only a week left in the session, and the Senate is not interested in any so-called reform bills, leaders there say.
In fact, a bill that flew through the House that would ban splitting of lobbyists' gifts — to avoid having to name a lawmaker who accepts a Jazz ticket or meal exceeding the current $50 level — is being held in the Senate without a vote.