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Several dozen Utah lawmakers, their spouses and family members are sweltering in San Antonio this week, drawn to Texas by the annual National Conference of State Legislatures meeting.
It is the culmination of a busy month for Utah lawmakers, many of whom attended the American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in New Orleans last week and, before that, the Council of State Governments gathering in Honolulu.
At each stop along the way, they were joined by a group of lobbyists, with perhaps more than a dozen making the trip to San Antonio looking for some one-on-one time with legislators away from home. New Utah lobbyist rules prohibit some of the hobnobbing that previously occurred on golf courses, at baseball games and other events. But a loophole remains that allows lobbyists to stage major bashes for lawmakers and their families and never report it.
The changes, enacted in 2010, also remove spending limits on food, beverages, travel and lodging during meetings, though those expenditures must be reported.
As long as all of the legislators or members of a committee who are attending the conference are invited, the lobbyists can buy the lawmakers dinners or drinks without having to report the expense. (A similar exemption applies in Utah as well, as long as all of the members are invited.)
Getting out • Wednesday night, Utah legislators had dinner at Rosarios in San Antonio. An estimated 60 legislators and family members attended, and the event cost around $3,000, according to Jodi Hart, the lobbyist who organized the evening.
About a dozen lobbyists who traveled to San Antonio covered the cost of the event.
Last week, in New Orleans, a similar event was staged at a Cajun restaurant for a smaller group attending the ALEC conference.
And the week before, 1-800 Contacts chartered a boat and held a reception for legislators attending the CSG-West conference in Hawaii.
None of the money spent on the three events will have to be reported because food and drinks at events to which all legislators are invited are exempt.
The same exception was in place last year, when Utah lawmakers had a big dinner at Churchill Downs the famed Louisville racetrack when the NCSL conference was in Kentucky.
Contrast that with 2007, when legislators dined at some of the finest restaurants in Boston during the NCSL event, but the expense which totaled several thousand dollars for each dinner as well as who attended were reported by the handful of lobbyists hosting the event.
Allowing latitude • Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who pushed for the exception for national conferences, said the aim was to give some latitude for the types of corporate-sponsored receptions common at the national meetings without having to fret over who attended and how much was spent on each lawmaker.
"If it's part of the conference or part of the event, it didn't seem like it was appropriate to single that out for separate reporting," Bramble said. "It wasn't trying to create a loophole you could drive a freight train through."
Steve Hunter, a lobbyist representing numerous clients, is in San Antonio this week and has been at every NCSL meeting since 2004. He says the trips are worthwhile because it helps him bond with legislators.
"I represent clients that expect me to have meaningful relationships with these people, and it's not about buying them dinners or doing them favors. It's about policy time with them," he said. "I come because I want to be ahead of the game. I want to make sure I'm not just one of the thousand people [at the Capitol] on interim day or during a special session."
Networking • Jay Magure, vice president of government relations for 1-800 Contacts, said the national meetings give him a chance to talk to legislators from other states about the company's issues and Utah lawmakers are secondary.
Still, Magure sponsored the Hawaii reception on the rented catamaran for about 30 Utah legislators.
Generally, he said, there seem to be fewer extracurricular events than in the past, because Utah's lobbyist rules still apply, prohibiting things like tickets to sporting events or rounds of golf.
Long-time lobbyist Rob Jolley said he used to travel to the NCSL meetings, but he rarely goes now.
"The NCSL expenditures just got out of hand," he said. With so many lawmakers and their spouses attending, lunches and dinners piled up. Also, more lobbyists were attending, so there were fewer chances for time with the legislators.
"At NCSL, you have so many lobbyists going that the usefulness just went way down. I still find it useful to go to the smaller events where there aren't as many lobbyists," he said.