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Buying face time

Published April 30, 2013 1:01 am

Loophole hides influence buying
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There are 435 people who are registered to lobby members of the Utah Legislature. Only 15 of them reported that they spent any money feeding and watering (the Utah version of wining and dining) members of that body during the 2013 regular session.

Were the rest of them just goofing off? Had they all suddenly realized that plying the people who make our laws and spend our tax money with dozens of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions and entertainments is not fair to the vast majority of ordinary folks who can't afford such blatant back-scratching?

No, and no.

Apparently, the unholy alliance of lawmakers and lobbyists decided that what we don't know won't anger us. So, in 2010, the law was changed so that any lobbyist-sponsored function to which every senator, or every House member, or every member of a certain committee or party caucus, was invited was not covered by lobbyist-disclosure regulations.

Money spent on feeding or otherwise entertaining an individual lawmaker doesn't have to name the lawmaker so befriended as long as the amount spent is less than $10 in a day. The result, predictably, was a long list of meals costing $9 or, word has it, some check-splitting where legislators themselves spent some of their taxpayer-funded per diems so that the checks picked up by lobbyists stayed under the $10 limit.

The result, as reported in Saturday's Salt Lake Tribune, was a plummeting of reported entertainment expenses by lobbyists from some $72,000 in 2010 to only $7,300 in 2013. And the reported total this year would have been lower still except that some lobbyists reported the kind of expenditures that others legally had not, either out of habit or an abundance of caution.

The law that changed the rules was passed in a cynical attempt to head off a planned voter initiative that would have banned all gifts to lawmakers other than "light refreshments." But the result was not more ethical government, just less evidence of unethical behavior.

Lawmakers are quick to take offense at the suggestion that their vote can be bought for a plate of warmed-over chicken. And that, in a very narrow sense, is probably true.

But the unavoidable fact is that it is only human nature for people who have been given any sort of gift or favor to feel indebted to the giver. And it isn't necessary for there to be any overt, or unspoken, quid pro quo for lawmakers to be influenced in the direction their caterer's wish, if for no other reason than they've bought a few moments of face time with their stomach-pleasing events.