Sen. Todd Weiler says lobbyists quietly help elect many legislators in ways that escape public notice, but a bill to change that took a first step toward passage Monday.
His SB97 would require candidates seeking to fill midterm vacancies to disclose donated time they receive from registered lobbyists. The Senate Government Operations Committee passed it 4-0 and sent it to the full Senate.
Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said campaigns to fill vacancies are often decided in just weeks or days among party delegates. He said a third of sitting Utah legislators — including himself — first took office through such midterm appointments, and then have a 95 percent chance of re-election.
“Registered lobbyists will swoop in. Sometimes they will actually choose the candidate. They will tell them what to do. They will write their materials for them. They will tell them whom to contact. They will raise money for them. They will tell them what to say in their speeches,” he said. “Often the result is they basically pick the winner.”
Weiler notes that once a candidate wins, “a lobbyist cannot even buy an $11 meal for that person, but before that process all that consulting … is going dark.” He said the state recently heard much about “dark money” in scandals that led to the resignation of former Attorney General John Swallow. “I would call this ‘dark consulting.’ ”
He added that puts an average person at a disadvantage. “They don’t have much of a fighting chance if they are just working on their own, and starting to call friends and family and ask them for help” against someone who has experienced lobbyists assisting. He argues that should be made transparent through disclosure.
The bill was supported by the reformist Alliance for a Better Utah and by the lieutenant governor’s office — although it said it still seeks technical changes about how the donated time would be reported and made available on its website.
The bill also makes changes in definitions of what types of “events,” “tours” and “meetings” legislators may attend at the expense of organizers without running afoul of ethics laws.
It would allow lawmakers to attend if such activities relates to their public duties and is not for entertainment. That could include viewing the site of a natural disaster, seeing a facility or “assessing a circumstance” for a decision “within the scope of a public official’s duty.”
Weiler said he was invited to a Jeep tour last summer in Moab that sounded fun. He asked attorneys for the Legislature and the lieutenant governor’s office if it would be allowed and received two different answers.
He is also an attorney and wasn’t sure. “If I can’t figure out whether or not I can accept this trip, how is the general public [to know]?” He says his bill eliminates ambiguity.