Former state Sen. Steve Urquhart’s recent revelation on his Facebook page about the secretive lobbying nature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revived an old controversy but it still rings a familiar tune.
Urquhart’s accusations about Utah’s predominant religion using a back-door approach to pull the strings at the Legislature echoed those of former state Rep. Carl Wimmer, who left the Mormon faith to become an evangelical Christian. He wrote on his Facebook page two years ago about the church’s covert role in guiding legislation regarding immigration, alcohol and gay rights.
Then, the LDS Church announced last week that former Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens will be the Salt Lake City-based faith’s new chief lobbyist. He replaces John Q. Cannon, who now heads the Legislature’s Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, a signal of the interchangeability of those two institutions.
Nonetheless, most legislators have disputed the assertions of Urquhart and Wimmer, insisting they have never encountered heavy-handed lobbying from the church.
That might be true.
When you have the church’s clout in Utah’s halls of power, you don’t need to talk to more than a handful of policymakers to have your way.
The comments from Urquhart and Wimmer bring to mind the mother of all influence peddling, which I covered for The Salt Lake Tribune in the late 1980s.
A bill was introduced that appeared to have everyone’s support. It promised to boost economic development, make the roads safer by moving the drunks from behind the wheel to the back seat of commercial vehicles, and show out-of-staters what a fun place the Beehive State can be.
The bill, sponsored by Democrats Mike Dmitrich in the House and Omar Bunnell in the Senate, would make an exemption for hired limousines and tour buses to the state’s law banning open containers of alcohol in a moving vehicle, allowing the passengers to drink while safely in the hands of a professional driver.
The measure had the support of then-Gov. Norm Bangerter’s administration, which saw it as a good way to promote tourism and economic development.
It had the blessing of law enforcement, which saw it as a way to discourage drinking and driving by giving imbibers an alternative to getting behind the wheel.
It had no public opposition in House committee hearings before being sent to the floor and passing nearly unanimously.
In the Senate, it languished in the Rules Committee for several days before finally being released to the floor in the waning days of the session.
When it finally came up for debate on the last day, one senator, Republican Stephen Rees, made a motion to circle the bill — a delaying tactic — while he had time to research how surrounding states handled that issue.
It sounded like a reasonable request, and the bill was circled on a voice vote with little opposition.
Then, as the evening progressed, the measure remained circled with no apparent attempt by Rees or Senate President Arnold Christensen to bring it back for floor debate.
Bunnell became nervous and asked Rees when he was going to undo his delaying motion so the bill could be debated.
He got no response.
As the clock approached the dreaded midnight hour, when the legislative session would officially end, Bunnell tried to get the attention of Christensen so he could make the motion to bring the bill up for debate.
He was ignored. The bill died.
It turned out that lobbyists for the LDS Church made two telephone calls on the last night of the session. One was to Rees and the other was to Christensen.
The church officials, who had never voiced public opposition to the bill during the weeks it was meandering through the Legislature, asked the two senators to ensure the bill didn’t pass because the church wanted more time to study the issue.
So those two clandestine telephone calls did the job. No lobbying of the larger legislative body was necessary.
The example of that little collusion that occurred in the Legislature some 30 years ago seems to bolster the point made by Urquhart and Wimmer.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.