The current law governing gifts from lobbyists to Utah State Legislators is convoluted and silly. I support Representative Ralph Becker's attempt to limit lobbying gifts to $5. A legislator's constituents are the people who elected them, not the ones who want to wine and dine and improperly influence them.
A few years back my wife and I made the mistake of allowing a shyster to come into our home to give us a product demonstration. Before beginning the presentation, he gave us a substantial gift. Following the presentation, because of the initial gift, we felt obligated to purchase the product he was hawking. It is the only financial transaction we have ever made for which my wife and I are embarrassed. And it all started because of a gift that he dangled in front of our noses.
Color me naive, but I have no idea how a legislator can consider him or herself honest when he or she takes a gift from a lobbyist. But they do it all the time, and they know how to milk the system, whether they are a current legislator or a legislator-turned-lobbyist. Gifts given to legislators from lobbyists are not given because the lobbyist is simply being nice. Lobbying is a very lucrative business to many--far more lucrative than that of a legislator. There must be a 'good reason' lobbyists make so much money.
Lobbyists have profused political society to the exclusion of the people who really count--the people. You know, the ones who elected the legislators in the first place? It began at the federal level, and now is seeping like an ooze into Utah politics. Those who have played the game long enough consider it to be a worthy and honest pasttime. Those of us on the outside don't think so. It ain't.
Democrat Ralph Becker for the last several sessions of the Legislature has submitted a bill that would ban lobbying gifts greater than $5. It's never gotten very far. I suppose it's because too many legislators think they are worthy of being treated to free Jazz games, dinners, and Great Salt Lake tours. They are not. They are people just like you and I--who happen to have the privilege of representing you and I.
Current Utah law allows legislators who are given gifts that cost less than $50 not to be identified. Gifts are regularly given for amounts such as $49.90 to avoid the $50 declaration cap. Gifts are often split among multiple persons to avoid the cap, such as a $247 sporting event whose cost could be split among a legislator, their spouse, and three of their children. Such tactics have resulted in 86% of gifts to legislators not being detailed as to which legislators they were given to. Such an invitation to disingenuousness should be abhorred by any legislator, yet it is treated as a mere game of wits.
Becker's bill properly does not consider a few items as gifts such as those from employers, those given as awards for recognition of public service, educational materials and conferences, gifts from other government entities, and gifts from those related by blood line or household who are not acting as an intermediary for someone else. Items received not in accordance with the new law would be given to the state to be used for official purposes, or to be sold at auction. It is a very well-thought bill, and I hope that it becomes law.
Other legislators claim that "legislators would still go to events or meals with lobbyists but would just pay for it out of their own campaign accounts." That presents an entirely different problem, but it does nothing to counteract the fact that Becker's bill fosters much-needed honesty among legislators and accountability of those legislators to their real constituents.
I do admit that I wish Becker's bill would go one step further. In all cases where legislators accompany a lobbyist to an event where a gift would have been given under the current law, but the legislator pays for the cost of the item in accordance with the new law, it should be required that the legislator itemize the lobbyist they accompanied, the event they attended, the cost of the event, and the source of payment for the event.
Legislators are people just like us, and they were elected by us. They were not elected by the Utah Soft Drink Association, Pfizer, Questar or the University of Utah. Legislators should support Rep. Becker's bill as an indication that they are beholden to their real constituents and not those faux constituents who are glad to inebriate legislators to their whims with the gifts they come bearing. They ought to be embarrassed.