Saturday, January 12, 2008

Deseret Morning News Analysis Shows Utah State Lawmakers Grow Fat On Lobbyist Graft

Utah lobbyists gave state legislators and executives nearly $280,000 last year through all kinds of gifts — from Utah Jazz tickets to college sports tickets, Billy Joel and Jon Bon Jovi concerts, nights at the symphony, golf, travel to Florida and even American Express gift cards, an analysis by the Deseret Morning News shows. Legislators alone took a quarter-million dollars in gifts, the newspaper found among the hundreds of pages of the 2007 year-end lobbyists financial reports. I'm just presenting the highlights here; the complete story can be read HERE. Related story aired by KSL Channel 5.

Click HERE to view complete 62-page breakdown in PDF format.

Here are the biggest individual offenders. Receiving the most in identifiable gifts were:

Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, $6,777
Senate Minority Whip Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, $4,614
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, $4,475
Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, $3,069
House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, $2,707.

Overall, members of the state legislature took at least $250,000 from 149 lobbyists who provided at least some gifts. Nearly all 104 legislators took at least one gift last year. That means that on average each legislator took about $2,400 in gifts. Considering that each legislator gets paid $12,330 (plus some mileage) for the 45-day general session, on average gifts equal about a fifth of their regular pay.

And the rot has infested the executive branch as well. Even though Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. signed an executive order banning gifts in February 2007, about $20,000 was still spent on top officials and college advisory board members last year. Governor Huntsman himself received a $43 gift basket from Utah Medical Association lobbyist Michelle McOmber, a $30 "holiday gift" from the University of Utah and a $40 meal from Utah State University. Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert also received the same holiday gift basket and holiday gift, plus a $64 meal at Thanksgiving Point by its lobbyist, Jennifer Stevens, and a $55 meal at an awards banquet by the conservative Sutherland Institute.

One other problem - who received exactly what and how much is often a mystery. Loopholes in Utah law allow lobbyists not to disclose on whom they spent about 60 percent of their gift money. Also, loopholes could allow many other gifts not to be disclosed at all.

And what about the lobbyists themselves? Here are the biggest offenders:

Corporate Lobbyists:

Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, $16,339
Utah League of Credit Unions, $15,515
Comcast, $11,722
Questar, $8,414
Utah State Bar Association, $7,165

The Deseret Morning News is also fair-minded enough to disclose that it was Number 12 on the list with $3,375 worth of free newspapers given to legislators during its 2007 session. However, I would be willing to exclude this from consideration because it helps keep lawmakers informed. In addition, the cost per newspaper is nominal.

Individual lobbyists:

Scott Simpson, lobbyist for the Utah League of Credit Unions: $15,515
Steve Proper, Comcast lobbyist: $11,722
Spencer Stokes, multiple lobbyist: $11,568
former legislator Paul Rogers, $7,454
former legislator Blaze Wharton, $7,111
IHC lobbyist Alan Dayton, $7,097

The Deseret News engaged pollster Dan Jones & Associates to find out what Utahns think about this skulduggery. What did they find?

- 38 percent of Utahns want to ban all gifts to legislators.
- 26 percent want to lower the $50 legislator-naming level to $5, so nearly all gifts would be reported along with the lawmakers who took them.
- 29 percent consider the current reporting system adequate.

The bottom line: 64 percent of respondents want at least some tightening of the current gift-taking rules. In addition, both Democratic and Republican respondents were almost equally desirous of change, so the problem is not confined to one party.

But even though previous polls by Jones have also shown a desire for change in Utah's gift-taking regulations, legislators have refused to adopt alternatives, with the Senate killing such bills in recent years.

Jones also asked about two other so-called government reform issues: Setting up an independent ethics commission to review complaints about officials in all three branches of government, and campaign contribution limits.

Dan Jones also found that 77 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat favor setting up an independent ethics commission, before which everyday citizens could bring complaints about legislators, executive branch officials or even judges. Currently, there is no formal way to bring a complaint against an executive branch member; legislator ethical complaints can only be brought by fellow lawmakers before an in-house ethics committee; and complaints against judges go to a judicial review committee, where the complaints are kept secret unless official action is later taken against a judge.

And finally, Jones found that 58 percent of Utahns want some kind of limits placed on contributions to statewide or legislative candidates. One-third said the current system of unlimited contributions by citizens, political action committees or businesses is fine.

Commentary: I'm not particularly a radical on this issue. I tend to side with the 26 percent who would be satisfied with the $5 reporting threshold. But we also need a more comprehensive ban on high-value gifts. We don't send lawmakers to Salt Lake to grow rich - we send them to serve the people.

However, what's particularly offensive is that lawmakers refuse to even discuss it, though polls show that 64 percent of the people want some change. This shows contenpt for the people, and the legislature needs to pay a price. This is why we need to target the five state lawmakers listed above for defeat the next time they run, to administer an object lesson to the rest of the legislature that when they ignore the will of the people, they will pay the ultimate penalty - electoral DEFEAT.

Perhaps a case could be made to increase lawmakers' salaries to better immunize them against the appeal of lobbyists' gifts. The legislature is welcome to make a case for it - $12,000 per year seems a bit skinny - but they better not go for the windfall raises that some of these school boards are pushing for.

The loyalty of a lawmaker who gets 20 percent of his total compensation from lobbyists must be called into question. Alaskans got a painful lesson in this when they woke up one day to find that VECO had bought four state lawmakers. Three of them - Tom Anderson, Pete Kott, and Vic Kohring, are now guests of the state at various Federal facilities. The other, Bruce Weyhrauch, goes on trial in February. If it could happen in Alaska, it can happen in Utah. It's time to tighten up the standards.

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