As key votes come up on what to include in final budgets, special interests have packed Utah legislators’ social calendars with a long string of free activities — usually with a complimentary dinner — to help lawmakers’ families have some fun.

Places hosting such events included the Utah Natural History Museum, the Living Planet Aquarium, Clark Planetarium, the Discovery Gateway children’s museum, the Hale Centre Theatre, Thanksgiving Point’s Museum of Natural Curiosity, the CenterPoint Legacy Theater and The Leonardo museum.

Not surprisingly, all those groups either requested state money from lawmakers this year or have in the recent past.

Requests this year include $2 million by the Living Planet Aquarium, $500,000 by Discovery Gateway, $250,000 by CenterPoint Legacy Theater, $175,000 by The Leonardo and $130,000 by the Hale Centre Theatre.

Those are just a few examples of the 74 breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions, family events and breaks with food offered this year to lawmakers by at least 71 groups with business before lawmakers, according to social calendars that the Legislature provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

They raise the annual question about whether there is such a thing as a free lunch for lawmakers, or what groups hope their money and food may bring. All sides agree the events bring at least some extra access for groups to make pitches or seek goodwill.

Free food for lawmakers

Increasing access

“An adage says the best way to a legislator’s heart is through the stomach,” says Bill Tibbitts, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, which lobbies for the needs of the poor — and cannot afford to hold one of the meals for lawmakers. He says groups that do sponsor them have an advantage.

“Everybody has to eat, and having the ability to provide a lunch for all the legislators means that you get to talk to some of the ones that have the least time and are pulled in the most directions and are the hardest to get time with,” he said. His group must resort instead to trying to catch lawmakers in the hall one by one.

“If we could afford to [sponsor a meal], we’d obviously have more access,” Tibbitts said. Lawmakers are considering more than 1,400 bills and a $16 billion budget in 45 days.

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, is chairman of the social arm of the House, called the “Third House.” Handy jokes he is the members’ cruise director, announcing each day from the floor what events are scheduled.

He says most are “traditions that have grown up over the years” and are repeated annually. He adds they help time-challenged lawmakers to multitask and listen to groups while they eat or relax, and acknowledges it provides extra access for some.

“For example, we went out last night to the Hale Centre Theatre” to see “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Handy said. “We had a nice dinner, but we all bought our own tickets [as required by ethics rules]. There was no pitch. It was just a social thing, but there was also relationship building — because we do give the Hale Theatre some money.”

How much influence?

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, has handled Third House activities for the Senate. “There’s no doubt [event sponsors] get a little bit of access,” he acknowledges. “That’s why these groups do it.���

But, he adds, “I don’t think it sways votes at all. [Senators] still listen to all sides of the issues.” He said many attend because “there’s some good gained from it. You can ask a question about a bill” easily at the events.

Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune A Feb. 13, 2015, lunch in the Capitol Rotunda for legislators sponsored by the Utah Association of Counties and the Governor's Office of Economic Development

Marc Watterson, government affairs director for the American Heart Association, said it holds an annual luncheon in part to make life easier for its volunteers as well as legislators — allowing both groups to meet and mix easily.

“As a lobbyist for a nonprofit, I often am like an army of one up there on the hill,” he said, but bringing together volunteers at a dinner “really amplifies our message.”

He adds, “In trying to influence policymaking and the process, we’ve found that nothing is more meaningful than elected officials having a face-to-face conversation with their constituents,” who are volunteers for his group. And the annual dinner makes that easier.

His group also provides for lawmakers two annual snack breaks, where they can also get a few pointers on CPR or have their blood pressure measured.

Candace Daley, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said her group’s annual lunches make it easier for the small-business owners to make the most of a rare day away from their companies to visit and lobby the Legislature.

They are able “to have lunch with their House or Senate member to talk about the issues that most concern them” and take just one day to talk with a unified voice instead of needing many days or weeks to talk to lawmakers one by one.

She adds, “We probably had 75 percent of the legislators attend our lunch. This year, we also had five different legislators come talk to our business owners on issues that range from the economy to taxes to health care.”

Event numbers

The number of free-food events has dropped a bit in recent years, largely because a change in the Legislature’s pay structure in 2013 removed a financial incentive for members to attend free meals.

Through 2013, legislators received a $61 daily allowance from the state for meals during the 45-day session. So when they were treated to free meals, they could pocket that allowance with no questions asked. In fact, most lawmakers considered the meal allowance part of their regular pay.

Lawmakers then raised their base salary and changed meal allowances so they would be reimbursed only for their actual cost, based on receipts submitted. If they accept a free meal now, they receive no extra reimbursement from the state.

With such changes, the number of free-food events dropped from a high of 98 in 2013 to 74 now.

While the Legislature has 45 calendar days, 12 of those are nonworking weekend days. So for the 33 actual workdays, lawmakers are offered just over two free-food events per day (and they are offered none during the last week or so as work schedules are too packed to allow them).

This year, that includes 13 dinners, eight family events (usually with dinner), 15 lunches, nine breakfasts, seven receptions and 32 snack breaks.

Seventeen health care organizations hosted events, ranging from the Utah Hospital Association to the Utah Optometric Association and Molina Healthcare. The Legislature currently has 54 health-related bills numbered and filed.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A free lunch is served in the Capitol Rotunda sponsored by Farmer's insurance, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.

Universities in the state constantly compete not only in sports but also for money for new buildings and programs. Arms of the University of Utah, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah universities all held events.

USU’s is especially popular among lawmakers: It brings samples of Aggie ice cream. SUU gave stuffed bison to lawmakers.

Perhaps RRJ consulting — a lobbying firm — knows best how to tug on lawmakers’ heartstrings. It helped them solve what to do for spouses on Valentine’s Day by offering what it billed as a “date night” with a dinner and a movie.

RRJ reports that its numerous clients include AT&T, Delta Air Lines, Intermountain Healthcare, Adobe and Rocky Mountain Power.