Gehrke: Utah’s cities should abide by the same gift rules as legislators and that means no more Jazz tickets or expensive meals

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

There was a time when legislators would rub elbows with lobbyists on the front row of Utah Jazz games and chow down at the top restaurants and voters never would be the wiser.

Every attempt to change that or even require disclosure was shot down by the Legislature until the body caved to the bad publicity from the embarrassing stereotype and, after several years of refinements and wrangling, finally limited the gifts lobbyists can give to legislators.

But across the state there have been other elected officials, members of the city councils and school boards, who have only been regulated by a hodgepodge of inconsistent and often inadequate gift rules.

Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is looking to require all city officials to abide by the same gift limits — $10 for gifts and about $40 for meals — that legislators have lived by since 2010, and it makes sense.

Members of the Salt Lake City Council, for example, can accept tickets to events or meals up to $50. Other cities don’t have any limits at all.

McKell said he is aware of examples where city officials have taken gifts, although he said he wouldn’t say which city because he didn’t want to “throw anyone under the bus.”

“The activities I’m concerned about are activities that historically legislators were involved in, things like taking Jazz tickets and so forth,” McKell said.

Once upon a time, maybe local governments didn’t need this kind of regulation. But as cities and school districts have become larger, so have the impacts of the decisions they make. Along with that, it has become more common for the same high-powered lobbyists who work the corridors of the state Capitol to do more work in city hall.

Think, for example, how many millions of dollars could hinge on a zoning decision at the city level and you start to understand why lobbyists are becoming more prominent players at the municipal level.

Importantly, McKell’s legislation also covers the local purchasing official, since you don’t want your contracting supervisor’s impartiality called into question because of lobbyist gifts.

“If it’s reasonable for us, why is it not reasonable for all of our local elected officials?” McKell said during debate on HB64.

There are some common sense exemptions in his bill. For example, if the State School Board Association wants to send members on a fact-finding trip, the association would not have to disclose it as a lobbying expense.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns — which represents municipal governments — did not object to the bill, nor did the various school boards or associations.

McKell’s proposal passed the House late last session but the clock ran out before it made it through the Senate. This year, his bill got unanimous support in the House and McKell and his Senate sponsor, Sen. Karen Mayne, got it through the Senate committee Wednesday, moving it toward a full vote.

To be clear, the law applying to legislators is still not perfect. Ever since it went into effect in 2010, there has been a gaping loophole that lets lobbyists dump thousands of dollars on special legislative events, provided they invite all of the members of the Legislature or a legislative committee or task force.

For example, Tuesday night, legislators and their families had an evening at Hale Center Theatre — an entity that is regularly asking the Legislature for money — and the cost of the event doesn’t have to be disclosed because the entire Legislature was invited.

There are dozens of sponsored events like that during the legislative session that never get disclosed. On top of that, when legislators travel out of town — for the National Conference of State Legislature’s conferences, for example — lobbyists pick up the tab for the “State Night” party, without having to reveal how much was spent.

It continues to be a blind spot in the law that hides thousands of dollars a year at the state level and could let the much smaller city councils or school boards do the same. It’s an issue of disclosure and accountability that should be addressed, both at the state and local level.

But for now, McKell’s bill would be a positive step toward providing a level of uniformity and transparency that will help residents see who is trying to influence policy and hopefully give voters confidence their elected officials are acting in their best interest.