Watchdogs criticize Salt Lake Chamber’s canceled $2,500-a-head ‘off-the-record conversation’ with lawmakers on tax reform

Government watchdog groups are calling out the Salt Lake Chamber over an abruptly canceled “off-the-record conversation” on tax reform in which business owners would have paid $2,500 for a cozy session with Utah legislative leaders.

“It didn’t smell right to us,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah. “Having a meeting that is closed off to the public, and only businesses that pay $2,500 are able to get in, it’s another instance of the Legislature’s approaching issues and not looking like it’s transparent and open to the public.”

The June 21 lunchtime “conversation” was advertised in a flyer distributed by the Salt Lake Chamber. It offered face time to 25 people with Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and Sen. Lyle Hillyard, co-chairman of the Utah Legislature’s tax task force, which is examining ideas for changing the state’s tax policy. Rep. Francis Gibson, House majority leader and Hillyard’s co-chairperson on the tax force, was listed as “invited” on the flyer, but not confirmed.

The sticking point, Thomas said, is where the $2,500 would go. The flyer stated: “$2,500 minimum [Promoter Club level] contribution made to Utah Business PAC,” the Salt Lake Chamber’s political action committee. Further, the Chamber’s PAC would make a contribution to PACs for House and Senate leadership. (The flyer did not specify which PACs.)

The event was canceled late Thursday, after inquiries from the Deseret News.

“The flyer was really misperceived,” Abby Osborne, the Chamber’s vice president of public policy and government relations, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday. “There was no cost to attend the event, but rather an invitation to contribute to the PAC. … There was a lot more information that was in emails to the members. You can only put so much in a flyer.”

Osborne, who has been named as Wilson’s new chief of staff beginning July 1, said the Chamber will schedule other events for its members to talk about tax reform, but “we will continue to be uber-cautious, and are thinking things through thoroughly.”

Spokespeople for Wilson and Hillyard said the lawmakers pulled out of the event when they learned that it was a fundraiser.

“Sen. Hillyard was told by the Chamber it was a meeting to hear concerns and feedback following the Salt Lake Chamber’s meetings regarding reforming tax policy,” Aundrea Peterson, spokeswoman for the Utah Senate, said in a statement. The statement said Hillyard “was not aware nor informed” that the meeting involved Utah Business PAC or that a donation would be made to the legislative PACs.

“Contributions that come as a result of this meeting will not be accepted,” Peterson’s statement said.

Greg Hartley, Wilson’s current chief of staff and spokesman, said in a text Friday to The Tribune that “we had no idea what the event was. We had it on the calendar as a speech about tax reform with the Salt Lake Chamber.”

Hartley said Wilson “has committed himself to meet with as many stakeholders as he can to talk about the budget structure problem.” But, he added, Wilson “has not and will not discuss policy that could become legislation at a fundraising event for anyone.”

The canceled event echoes another controversial Salt Lake Chamber move last fall. That involved an email invitation to BNSF Railway to be part of an “exclusive International/Inland port Committee” to take part in planning of the Inland Port, the massive distribution hub proposed for far west Salt Lake City. Admission to be on that committee, the email said, was some $10,000.

The email, obtained by The Tribune in March through an open records request, raised questions of a possible conflict of interest for Derek Miller because of his dual role as the Chamber’s president and CEO and as chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board.

Brett Hastings, founder of the watchdog group Utah Legislative Watch, said the Chamber’s planned tax-reform event was a sign that “our legislators, and powerful lobbying groups, are intent on passing laws without transparency.”

Hastings, whose group was formed in the wake of the Utah Legislature’s failed attempt to pass a hurried tax reform bill last winter, made this plea to lawmakers: “If you’re going to pass tax laws, let’s do it with accurate information and transparency.”