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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Transit Authority, recently under fire for top-dollar compensation and benefits for top executives, is also tops when it comes to another category of spending: lobbying.
Over the past seven years, UTA has spent $1.8 million lobbying local officials, an average of a quarter million dollars a year. In fact, is has a whopping eight registered contract lobbyists on its payroll, hired to lobby lawmakers and other elected officials. UTA pays for all this while a top Utah lawmaker heads up UTA's own board.
Monday, UTA celebrates the completion of its new $850 million Frontrunner South line linking Salt Lake and Provo, marking a steady evolution from once-small bus company to vast transit powerhouse. Its growth tracks its arrival as a political juggernaut on Capitol Hill and beyond.
How has UTA spent it's money in getting to this level?
Spending on lobbyists
KSL-TV and the Deseret News surveyed more than a dozen public entities in Utah, seeking to answer the question, "How much public money did they spend on lobbyists, hired to influence public officials?"
Only Sandy City comes close to UTA's nearly $300,000 a year.
- Spent $1.8 million on lobbying local officials over the last 7 years.
- The closest local entity in terms of lobbyist spending is Sandy City.
- Of more than 12 major metro transit agencies surveyed, only Houston spends more lobbying local officials.
- UTA is a publicly-funded agency, so when it hires lobbyists, it spends public money to do so.
- According to utah.gov, some of UTA's lobbyists have given campaign contributions to the campaigns of several Utah lawmakers, including that of Rep. Greg Hughes, who is also Chair of UTA's Board of Trustees.
Compared to other agencies, UTA is a big spender. After contacting more than a dozen transit agencies nationwide, KSL found just one — Houston — spending more than UTA on in-state lobbying. Systems as big as Boston and Seattle spent nothing on local lobbying.
When totaled over many years of service for the transit agency, the dollar figures for the lobbyists are notable. UTA paid its top lobbyist R & R Partners, a group that includes Mike Zuhl, $656,094 over the seven-year period 2006-2012. It has paid DLS Consulting, Inc. $428,090 since 2008. The agency has paid Greg Curtis $145,933 since 2009 and Alan Dayton, who also lobbies for Intermountain Health Care, $25,000 in 2010-'11. Both subcontracted for DLS Consulting, led by David Stewart.
UTA's top brass referred all questions to its spokesman, Gerry Carpenter. He said that spending helped UTA address prospective legislation and win financial and political support for major rail expansion, driving job growth and reducing congestion.
"The efforts being made are extensive and these individuals are appropriately compensated for the accomplishments they've helped us achieve," Carpenter said.
That compensation has helped fuel the rise of a small but powerful group of publicly-funded Utah super-lobbyists. People like Alan Dayton, who briefly served as Salt Lake County mayor; former Senate President Cap Ferry; his grandson David Stewart; and former Utah House Speaker Greg Curtis.
They each come with a lengthy list of other clients that also generously reward their services.
Deb Wangsgard, a critic of the agency, calls the spending absurd.
"I think that the agenda for UTA, truthfully, is one that we want to build our empire," Wangsgard said. "It's all about money, it's not what's best for the citizens."
Tammi Diaz also questions the spending. She's on disability and relied on UTA to get around, until the agency eliminated her bus route, the 203, in a cost cutting move.
"It seems like it's all for greed," Diaz said. "I feel like I'm being shut out of the community. Like I no longer belong."
The work is lucrative. UTA pays its local lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars a year. Over many years, it adds up to much more. Every member of this group declined to speak to us.
But UTA's top lobbyist, R & R Partners, tells us it's a worthy investment.
"I do believe we've had impact in terms (of) how local and state officials have viewed UTA. That's part of what we do as advocates," said lobbyist Mike Zuhl.
Public agencies spending public money to lobby public officials
Another curiosity is that UTA's spending on local lobbyists comes while its own board chairman is himself a legislative leader, GOP Draper representative Greg Hughes. He didn't respond to numerous interview requests.
"They're spending millions," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins. "It's just not right when they can pick up the phone and call us, any time."
Jenkins tried to pass a bill banning public entities from spending public money to lobby public officials, but didn't have the support.
"I just don't think it should be allowed," he said. "Especially those people are up here and we deal with them on a regular basis. All of them. They can knock on my door and walk in any time, so why do you need a lobbyist?"
|R & R Partners - Mike Zuhl
|DLS Consulting, Inc. - David Stewart
|DLS Consulting, Inc. - Greg Curtis
|DLS Consulting, Inc. - Alan Dayton
|Source: Utah Transit Authority
With lobbyists able to give and bundle campaign contributions and influence legislation, public funding of lobbyists tends to concentrate power in a few hands. Director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics Kirk Jowers said it "can become very incestuous."
"You simply have a monopoly of very narrow interests which can control public debate and public policy," Jowers said.
Some of UTA's own lobbyists have given campaign contributions to the House campaign of UTA's board chair, who again didn't respond to interview requests. Meantime, watchdog groups say Utah's lax campaign laws provide scant oversight of lobbyists and campaign donations.
In 2011, according to Utah.gov, UTA's top lobbyist, R & R Partners, gave campaign donations to several Utah lawmakers, including $1000 to the campaigns of Sen. Howard Stephenson, Rep. Mike Noel, and Rep. Greg Hughes, who also serves as UTA's board chair. Also, R & R gave $500 to the campaign of Sen. Wayne Niederhauser.