Is There Such Thing as a Free Lunch for Legislators?

Is There Such Thing as a Free Lunch for Legislators?

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John Daley ReportingOn Utah's Capitol Hill there's little chance legislators will go hungry during the 45-day session. Just about every day some special interest group will foot the bill for a meal or two. There's an annual debate over whether the practice should be banned, and whether the recipients should be named in public records.

If you look at disclosure reports lobbyists file it's easy to find plenty of examples of lawmakers accepting gifts worth under 50 dollars with no name attached. The most commonly listed item is meals, all of them for lawmakers bought by lobbyists.

Every session on Capitol Hill firefighters show up to fill candy bowls with taffy. It's a goodwill gesture they hope lawmakers remember.

Steven Demas, Utah State Fireman's Assn.: "They appreciate it. They always find it, and they know the firefighters are here."

Other groups jump at the chance to make a good impression, spending money on more than just candy. The U of U recently hosted lawmakers at a chili bash before a gymnastics meet. A few days later it was the Utah Hospital Association feeding lawmakers lunch at the Little America. And earlier in the month a shuttle picked up women lawmakers at the Capitol for lunch at the upscale New Yorker restaurant, courtesy of waste company Envirocare, hosted by paid lobbyist Cap Ferry whose 23 clients include Delta Airlines, Merck and Questar.

Cap Ferry, Lobbyist: “It was just a social event. There was actually no lobbying at all.”

Last year on Capitol Hill lobbyists spent $144,000 dollars on lawmakers, the vast majority on gifts like meals worth less than $50. Only for gifts worth more must lobbyists disclose the names of lawmakers.

Big groups like Utah Manufacturers Association, the Association of Realtors, or the Restaurant Association host big events, and no one ever knows which lawmakers attended. Other reports are filled with entries like this, “dinner, six legislators, $211 dollars" or "golf for 7, $267”, or simply, "public relations, $1400."

Claire Geddes, Government Watchdog: "The sad part is the public doesn't have a clue as to where that money goes to. Most of it is reported without a name."

Consider this lobbyist whose disclosure reports are similar to many others. Blaze Wharton, a former Democratic lawmaker, now represents 34 groups and corporations with interests on Capitol Hill like Pacificorp, Qwest and the Utah Bankers Association.

Last year he spent $4600 lobbying lawmakers, almost all of it under $50 per person. He bought anonymous lawmakers 152 meals, almost half--72--cost more than $30, and a quarter cost more than 40 dollars. Wharton declined to comment, but we found plenty of lawmakers who defend the practice, saying they shouldn't be expected to pay when someone else wants to bend their ear.

Ron Allen, (R) Minority Whip: "If somebody wants to pitch me for an hour and a half while I'm having lunch, I don't think I should have to pay for that lunch."

Greg Curtis, (R) House Speaker: "In the professional world if you invite somebody to lunch you expect them to pay and that's generally how it works."

Others say as part-time public servants they rely on lobbyists to help them understand a slew of complicated issues. Sen. Chris Buttars, (R) West Jordan : "I think lobbyists play a real role and do I believe in disclosure? Yes. But I believe someone should be able to take you out to lunch and you hear their side? Absolutely."

Cap Ferry , Lobbyist: "Question: does it help you gain access? It makes it so we can explain our position and if they hear both sides then they can make a better decision about what's right and what's wrong for their people."

Senator Ron Allen says he's concerned about the public's perception on this issue and proposed a resolution that lawmakers, rather than lobbyists, disclose any gifts.

Sen. Ron Allen, (D) Minority Whip: "The question is why should we have the lobbyists reporting any gifts they're giving us? We should take personal responsibility for anything that's going on there."

A bill from Republican Greg Bell would have closed the meal loophole, requiring the disclosure of any gift worth more than 10 dollars, so things like taffy would never be listed but meals would.

Sen. Greg Bell, (R) Fruit Heights: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

A recent KSL-TV/Deseret News poll shows Utahns believe lobbyists and campaign contributors have more influence on Capitol Hill than lawmakers’ constituents and public opinion. Some advocate the creation of independent commissions to oversee ethics complaints.

Our KSL-TV/Deseret News poll by Dan Jones and Associates finds most Utahns support new commissions to oversee ethics investigations, redistricting and elections. 77% agree that's a good idea. 11% disagree and 12% don't know.

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