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Free lunches, receptions abound for Utah Legislature

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

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Nineteen health-care industry groups sponsored free events this year, the most by a broad interest group. There are at least 52 bills related to that industry before the Legislature this session, not to mention the big budget battles over Medicaid and other appropriations affecting them.

Some of those groups included the American Heart Association, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Johnson & Johnson, Utah Association of Health Underwriters, Utah Health Plans, Utah Hospital Association, Utah Medical Association and the Utah Pharmacists Association.

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Meanwhile, the Legislature considered at least 97 bills on education. Among education groups sponsoring events were the PTA, Parents for Choice in Education, the Utah Christian Home School Association, the Utah Education Association teacher’s union and the Utah School for the Deaf & Blind.

Effects » Lincoln Shurtz is a lobbyist for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which held a lunch for legislators with mayors from around the state.

"It’s easier to get 104 people [the number of Utah legislators] in one place versus trying to find individuals 104 times" to explain cities’ priorities and concerns, Shurtz said.

"Because we are political subdivisions of Utah, we see ourselves as partners with the state .… We use this as an opportunity to say there are things important to local governments."

Okerlund, the Senate majority leader, says about such events: "It’s nice for them to get a bunch of legislators at the same time. It’s also nice for me to do something during the lunch hour to get some business done and learn what the issues are."

But groups without money to treat lawmakers say it makes them the underdogs.

"We are definitely at a disadvantage, all of us who are citizens up here because we have to stand out in the hall, send in notes and try to catch people one at a time," said Ron Mortensen, an activist on immigration and tax issues.

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He does take advantage of others’ free events, however. "We stand around the receptions and catch members as they come and go to them."

He adds, "It’s not that free meals are corrupting anybody, but it’s providing access."

Martindale, with Alliance for a Better Utah, says free events mean sponsors "have a captive audience" for a half-hour or more. She says when she can convince a lawmaker to meet her in a hallway, it’s noisy, full of distractions "and we may have just a couple of hurried minutes."

Okerlund says lawmakers want to hear all views and make an effort to do so.

"I try to make myself accessible and probably who I am most interested in hearing are constituents from my district," he said. But, "Really anybody who wants to come in and visit, we try to set up a time even if it’s only 10 minutes. But that’s the same we give the highest-paid lobbyists — 10 minutes."

Even with financial incentives gone from the pay changes, most see free events continuing because there are benefits on both sides of the interaction.

"I don’t see it changing," Martindale said.


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

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