Robert Gehrke: S.L. County Council members used taxpayer cash on this lobbying conference

Utah lawmakers have to pay their own way to ALEC, but two GOP council members schmoozed with lobbyists at taxpayers’ expense this year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

If you haven’t heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization is probably happy with that.

For years, ALEC and its newer local version, the American City County Exchange, have served as a venue where corporate lobbyists can schmooze with lawmakers and push legislation friendly to business and special interests, regularly to the detriment of consumers and citizens.

Utah lawmakers have served in leadership roles with ALEC, including Senate President Stuart Adams, who is one of the group’s biggest cheerleaders and was the national chairman in 2021.

Still, when it comes for senators to attend ALEC conferences, the long-standing policy has been that they can’t go on taxpayers’ dime. The Utah Legislature will pay for members to attend other conferences — The National Conference of State Legislators and The Council of State Governments, for example — but, given ALEC’s political leaning and advocacy mission, it is treated differently.

There’s no such guidance at Salt Lake County, so in July county taxpayers paid $6,297.63 so council members Dave Alvord and Dea Theodore and Alvord’s staffer, Corinne Johnson, could travel to Orlando for the annual conference/indoctrination session.

Topics included information on fighting woke investing, training on scaring constituents about rising crime, learning the playbook for fighting government overreach and being fed strategies for combating communist China.

Attendees also got to cuddle with puppies, go to a movie, sample Floridian cuisine and go on a special after-hours tour of Universal Studios.

When I asked Alvord about the trip, he confirmed he went and said it was worthwhile, but said Johnson paid her own way, which I suppose would have been the responsible thing to do — if it were true.

Travel records I received through an open records request showed that taxpayers paid more than $1,030 for Johnson’s hotel room for the conference that ran July 26-28, plus another $420.50 for her per diem and miscellaneous expenses. It appears Johnson arrived a day early and left the day after the event ended.

Alvord later acknowledged the county paid for part of the travel, but said her airfare was donated.

Theodore, according to the records, took her children, so taxpayers paid nearly $1,042 for their hotel.

Combined, taxpayers paid $1,300 for conference registration and membership dues for Alvord and Theodore.

I bring this up because last month Alvord was upset after I wrote how he and other self-anointed “budget hawks” on the council had fought (and failed) for more taxpayer money to attend conferences. After other council members proposed reducing the travel budget to $5,000 for each office, Alvord argued they should get 40% more — $7,000 per office.

These are not big numbers in the context of the county’s overall budget. I suppose it’s up to Alvord’s and Theodore’s constituents to decide if they think they’re getting their money’s worth from the Orlando trip or his Washington D.C. trip a few months earlier.

But it is informative to look at how the other council members spend their money. None of the other seven members on the council, three of them Republicans, attended ALEC.

Nor did any of them send staffers like Johnson — who is also the founder of the group Utah Parents United, which most recently has spent a lot of time trying to get books banned from school libraries — on out-of-state travel in the past fiscal year.

Many of the other council members tend to be more frugal or altruistic in how they use their discretionary office budget.

Republican council member Aimee Winder Newton had only spent $25.91 registering her staffer for training on the justice system. Council member Ann Granato and Laurie Stringham each donated $500 to the Alzheimer’s Association. So did council member Jim Bradley, who also contributed $1,000 to the Utah Food Bank.

In my mind, it’s better to use public money to help constituents than to make taxpayers pay for a weekend in Orlando where they can get cozy up to corporate lobbyists and give outside interests an outsized voice in county policy.

Here’s my favorite part of this whole episode, though: At the end of the meeting where the council debated the travel budget, Alvord had one more request for his colleagues. He had arranged a Constitution Day event where Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart were going to speak.

Instead of tapping his depleted office budget to pay for it, he asked the council to cough up another $150 for cookies or cupcakes. Granato stepped up and paid for the snacks out of her office’s budget, her latest charity case.