This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah firefighters were about to host a lunch for legislators at the Capitol not only to feed them, but also to spend the time lobbying for bills they want.
"I should probably go down there, but I just don't have the time," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. "I just don't have time to go down and get back and do some things I need to do as president."
Similarly, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said last week, "I haven't attended social events so far and seldom get a chance to" because of a busy schedule.
Lawmakers' schedules these days generally include fewer free-meal events sponsored by special-interest groups than they used to. Many groups hoping to lobby the Legislature en masse seem to be shifting away from time-consuming lunches and dinners to receptions where legislators can drop in briefly.
A main reason likely is that the Legislature changed its pay structure a few years ago to eliminate what had been a financial incentive to accept free meals. With that gone, many now tend to value quick events that don't eat up too much of their time.
So the number of sponsored lunches fell from 32 in 2013 (the last year of those incentives) to 14 this year, according to official legislative social calendars obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. At the same time, the number of receptions rose from 13 to 19.
But so many free breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snack breaks, receptions and family events still exist 88 this year, down from 98 in 2013 that questions still arise about whether they allow wealthy special interests to buy extra access and, perhaps, influence.
Incentives • 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.
Many lobbyists or special interests signed up to provide lunches at party caucus meetings twice a week where they were allowed to make short pitches about their legislative priorities on the days they provided the food.
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.
The change has had a noticeable effect on special-interest meals.
Special interests no longer sponsor any of the caucus lunches, as lawmakers choose to use official reimbursement methods instead.
The number of all group free meals (lunches, dinners, breakfasts) dropped from 53 in 2013 to 38 this year.
Time • A small shift has also come about in favor of events that are quick.
More receptions are now offered 19 this year, compared with 13 in 2013. Breakfasts which can offer quick fare such as juice and bagels increased slightly from 11 to 12.
"I would much rather go to a little reception," Niederhauser said, where he could listen to the group, munch on a few snacks and then leave relatively quickly.
He said dinners and sit-down lunches often turn into "a two-hour thing" he would rather avoid.
"More of that [shift to shorter events] has been happening," he said, "so more people are catching on that the best thing to do is a reception or a light luncheon in the Rotunda."
Events • Social calendars are full of events sponsored by groups that seek something from the Legislature. A full list of events scheduled for this year is available online at sltrib.com.
The Hale Centre Theatre is sponsoring an outing next month for lawmakers that includes a light dinner followed by the play "Pirate Queen." That theater is also seeking a $100,000 appropriation.
Thanksgiving Point earlier this month sponsored a "family event" for lawmakers at its Museum of Natural Curiosity in Lehi. Thanksgiving Point is seeking a $2.2 million appropriation for a butterfly biosphere.
Discovery Gateway has an event scheduled this month for lawmakers' families to explore that Salt Lake City children's museum. It is seeking a $500,000 appropriation.
The Natural History of Museum of Utah also has a family event scheduled, including a light dinner, as it seeks a $250,000 appropriation.
The Leonardo museum has an event for lawmakers at its "Mummies of the World" exhibit in Salt Lake City. It is seeking a $500,000 appropriation.
Health care industry groups are sponsoring 10 of the 85 social events on calendars. So far, 48 bills and resolutions have been filed about health issues at the Legislature.
Education groups are sponsoring five social events. Lawmakers have filed 63 bills on education so far.
How much groups spend on such events is not known because the Legislature six years ago changed the rules so the organizations do not need to report events or costs if a majority of either chamber or any committee is invited. So virtually no events or costs are formally reported anymore.
One free lunch • The Utah Fire Caucus, representing the state's firefighters, still offers an annual free lunch. It is a good example of such events and how they create a situation that would be the envy of any lobbyist seeking the ear of lawmakers.
Many legislators were corralled in the Capitol's Hall of Governors, and they listened for an hour to table chitchat about concerns on fire codes, firefighter retirement, wildfire policy and licensing for emergency medical technicians.
Every table had a sheet listing firefighters' concerns.
As legislators signed in and headed for the buffet line featuring beef, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and an assortment of cakes fire chiefs and other firefighters from lawmakers' hometowns were assigned to join them.
"We try to sit them with their representative or senator so they can talk and know what our issues are this year," said Murray Fire Chief Gil Rodriguez, head of the group. "It creates a great relationship with our legislators. We have a good dialogue, and I think that's important. The luncheons are great."
He added that the lunch is a much easier and more powerful way to communicate with legislators giving time to form relationships and talk more in depth than the typical way of lobbying by trying to catch them in the hallway for one-on-one chats.
Signs at the event listed equipment manufacturers, unions and departments that helped pay for it. Bagpipes provided entertainment. Top firefighters were honored, as were some lawmakers for their support.
Firefighters have another way of building goodwill during the Legislature. Every day, they fill plastic fire hydrants full of free saltwater taffy for lawmakers and visitors.
Ethics • The freebie events rekindle a debate annually about whether they give richer interests better access and influence with lawmakers.
Adding to that are findings by The Tribune last month that during the 2015 nonelection year, legislators still raked in $1.54 million in donations 94 percent of which came from special interests.
"It is difficult to get time with lawmakers," says Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, which serves the poor. "The people who sponsor dinners are able to have the entire meal time to explain their point of view. That's an advantage we don't have and can't afford."
Even Niederhauser acknowledges "it increases access for sure" for groups sponsoring events.
"Sometimes that's good, sometimes that's bad, depending on what you are advocating for or what you don't want to see," he said. "But I think, overall, it doesn't hurt the process. It helps it" by providing more information going into debates.
Niederhauser believes most lawmakers try to listen to all groups and take time to talk to them in halls or take their phone calls and emails.
Steve Erickson, a lobbyist for Crossroads Urban Center and wildlife groups, which also cannot afford the special events, agrees that "most members make an honest effort to get out and allow access. But some are a lot harder to get to than others."
He adds, "I think we can still get access for the most part, but clearly they [groups that sponsor dinners and receptions] have better access."
Erickson senses, though, that extra influence is dwindling over time after financial incentives to attend free meals disappeared. Not only are numbers of such events dropping a bit, but he believes attendance is as well.
"I don't know how many of those receptions are well-attended. In just doing a walk-by [at Capitol receptions], I often don't see a lot of people inside," he said. "So it seems like it doesn't help much."
For the record, 81 outside groups sponsored 85 events last year including 20 snack breaks, 19 receptions, 14 lunches, 12 dinners, 12 breakfasts and eight "family events" such as trips to museums or theaters.