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Dressed in cowboy boots and belt buckles, a handful of Utah legislators, including leaders of the body, gathered last week at This is the Place Heritage Park for dinner and a hoedown with Utah lobbyists.

A night earlier, Zions Bank hosted Republican legislators from across the country, including those from Utah, who were attending the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual conference at a reception at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

Next week, the lobbyists and a larger group of legislators will do it again, as they attend the National Conference of State Legislatures convention in Chicago.

And because of a loophole built into Utah's lobbyist disclosure laws in 2010, none of the expenditures or attendees have to be reported. It is an exception that has allowed thousands of dollars of lobbyist expenditures — a majority of what is spent entertaining and feeding legislators — to go unreported.

Kim Burningham, chairman of the group Utahns for Ethical Government, said that "it troubles me" that there is a loophole for the meals at conferences.

"I believe in lobbying, but lobbyists should provide information, not favors," Burningham said. "If [the meal] is being picked up by a lobbyist, you have to ask why they would do that. I think it is to buy influence and I think that's questionable behavior."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, co-sponsored the 2010 bill that tightened some lobbyist gift rules — like prohibiting a lobbyist paying for a lawmaker's ticket to a Jazz game or covering green fees on a golf course — but created the conference loophole. He said that, when dozens of legislators and spouses and families are attending lobbyist-sponsored events at conferences, it makes it difficult to keep track of how much is spent on each.

And sometimes at national conferences there are legislators from other states attending, which makes reporting even more challenging.

"It just makes it impossible to report," Jenkins said. "It got complicated enough that that was what we decided to do."

Jay Magure, vice president of government relations for 1-800 Contacts, which organized the ALEC State Night dinner last week, said about 20 legislators attended and he and other lobbyists picked up the tab for the evening. He said it is the norm in other states to not have to report the state night dinners.

"I don't know that I've ever had to report a state night," he said. "If they allow you to do meals, generally speaking, conferences are exempted."

Next week, about 50 people — lobbyists and Utah legislators — will gather at Keefer's Restaurant in Chicago, which was called the best steakhouse in the city by The Food Network and one of America's Top 10 steakhouses by Playboy magazine.

Jodi Hart, a lobbyist and head of the Capitol Hill Association, organized the event, even though she won't be attending. The price tag for the dinner is expected to end up at about $3,000 total, she said, a smaller bill than in years past, because fewer people will be attending.

"It's a lot smaller," she said.

Last year at NCSL, lawmakers dined at Rosarios in San Antonio. About a dozen lobbyists who traveled to the event covered the cost. And a week prior, a similar event was held at a Cajun restaurant during the ALEC conference in New Orleans.

gehrke@sltrib.comTwitter: @RobertGehrke