Utah's 104 part-time legislators took a quarter million dollars in gifts last year from lobbyists and public colleges, lobbyist filings show.

Let me repeat that number — $250,000 in free meals, sporting event tickets, rounds of golf, concerts, even trips to Florida and Las Vegas.

While the gift-taking number may be larger than in recent years, the issue of legislative swag is not.

A new public opinion poll by Dan Jones & Associates for the newspaper and KSL-TV finds that nearly two-thirds of Utahns want either the gift-taking banned outright, or they want more disclosure of gifts tied to specific legislators.

The current law says a lobbyist only has to name the legislator who takes his gifts if the gift is more than $50 in one day. And only 40 percent of that $250,000 came with legislators' names attached. The rest of the spending was nameless.

Lobbyists, as a recent investigation by the Deseret Morning News shows, have become adept at providing gifts in ways that bypass naming legislators. And several conversations I've had with lobbyists after that story ran a week ago tell me that there are some lobbyists who just are not reporting some of their $50 or more gifts at all, either through sloppy record-keeping or planned underreporting.

It's clear, however, that legislators are just not going to do anything about gift-taking. It is not a partisan issue; the two highest gift-takers are members of Democratic leadership in the Senate. And most legislators are safe in re-election in their districts. More than 90 percent of legislators who seek re-election win.

At this point lobbyist gifts to legislators have become ingrained in the legislative branch of government. Some lawmakers expect them and clearly don't want to function without them.

Two examples of how bizarre this has become:

• The Utah Legislature belongs to several national legislative groups — one being the National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL is a valuable organization, especially for a part-time legislature. NCSL has various conferences each year, but at its annual conference in the summer it is customary for each state to host a "state night dinner."

When the NCSL conference was in Nashville, Utah lawmakers and guests went on a Mississippi River cruise one night, with dinner and dancing.

Guess who pays for this "state night dinner"? Yep. Local lobbyists. And dozens of them go to NCSL just to be present at that event. But why are lobbyists paying for a conference dinner in the first place? If NCSL is important enough for the state to pay travel, hotel and registration fees for Utah lawmakers, why doesn't the state pay for the "state night dinner" as well?

• Utah legislators traditionally are advocates for the public colleges and universities in their areas. But the local college bosses take their local legislators to many university-sponsored events, including sporting games and dinners. The student/athletes on the field or court are banned from taking such perks by collegiate rules. But not our legislators.

I repeat an example I've used before. Let's say that a legislator was sued in his private business by a disgruntled competitor and shows up for the first day of the civil trial and jury selection. At lunch time, after the jury has been picked, the judge says there will be a two-hour break.

Up jumps the plaintiff's attorney and says: "I just want to remind you that there is a bus outside to take the jury and judge to the New Yorker club, where we will have a nice lunch paid for by us. We may or may not talk about this case, but you'll all have a fine time."

The above is regular lobbying business in the Legislature, where lobbyists take legislators to lunch and dinner frequently during the general session.

Of course, in the judicial branch of government both the plaintiff's attorney and the judge would be disbarred, maybe even prosecuted. And each jury member would be kicked off the panel and likely prosecuted as well.

And you can bet your final dollar that the defendant/legislator in this example would file a bill outlawing such underhanded, vile and dirty court practices — if it wasn't already against the law. And that bill would fly through the Legislature with much indignation.

Yet Utah legislators just keep on taking lobbyists gifts — and get their backs up whenever the media reports on them.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com