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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Ronald McDonald" examines the roof of the Utah House of Representatives while he visited the Legislature, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.
Free lunches, receptions abound for Utah Legislature

Lawmakers’ incentive to dine with special interests is gone under a pay structure change.

First Published Mar 03 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 03 2014 08:51 pm

Last year, Utah legislators tweaked their pay structure and ended what proved to be something of a financial incentive to gobble free meals offered by special interests.

With that change, the number of such free-food events decreased this year — but only by 10 percent, with 93 of them still scheduled for the 45-day session.

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While freebies remain a popular way to attract lawmakers to hear lobbying pitches, they appear to be changing. The number of free lunches — which are expensive for sponsors — dropped by nearly half this year. Less-costly receptions nearly doubled.

"That may be a result of what’s going on" with pay changes, said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. "Sponsors have to weigh the cost versus how many people they can get" and catered lunches are expensive. "Members are always very busy," so he acknowledges that fewer may attend lunches with financial incentives gone.

Still, special interests don’t see free wining and dining disappearing any time soon. That’s too bad, say groups who can’t afford that style of lobbying.

Incentives » Until last year, lawmakers received a $61 daily allowance from the state for meals during the session. Lawmakers treated to free meals could pocket the money, no questions asked.

In fact, most lawmakers considered the meal allowance part of their regular pay. But then their base salary was raised and now meal expenses can be reimbursed for actual cost, based on receipts submitted.

"I think the way the salary is now, it actually improves the system" and gives wealthier special interests a bit less influence, said Maryann Martindale, director of the reform-seeking Alliance for a Better Utah.

Last year, special interests scheduled 103 events. It dropped to 93 this year.

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But the number of free group lunches declined from 32 to 17 during the Legislature’s 33 workdays, thanks largely to the Senate Republicans ending the practice of allowing special-interest groups to pay for their twice-a-week caucus lunches. At the same time, the number of evening receptions increased from 13 to 22.

Until four years ago, laws required groups to disclose how much they spent on meals and treats for legislators. But then a law restricting gifts created a big loophole. Disclosure is required when a lobbyist takes a legislator or a small group of lawmakers out, but no reporting is required when the lobbyist or group invites all legislators, or all members of a committee, to an event.

So while the actual spending on such freebies is now a mystery, The Salt Lake Tribune compiled a partial list of the events and their sponsors using legislative social calendars, obtained through open-records requests.

Events » This year, the Senate is being offered at least 12 breakfasts, 17 lunches, 10 dinners, 25 snack breaks, 20 receptions and five family events.

The House is being offered 11 breakfasts, 16 lunches, nine dinners, 25 snack breaks, 22 receptions and five family events.

Events ranged from a snack break with food from McDonalds, including a visit from Ronald McDonald, to a dinner and a show at the Hale Center Theatre featuring its production of "Les Miserables."

Not surprisingly, groups that offer events often look for something in return.

For example, The Leonardo museum held an event Feb. 21 for legislators and their families to see its exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Meanwhile, the organization has requested $750,000 in state funds this year.

Clark Planetarium held a family event on Feb. 10. It is seeking $1 million in state funds. The Natural History Museum of Utah had a family event on Feb. 3, and it has asked for $380,000 in state money.

Zion’s Bank and the Sundance Institute also have scheduled a dinner and a movie night. The Sundance Film Festival is looking for an appropriation of $750,000.

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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