SALT LAKE CITY -- Taxpayers should not fund lobbyists at the state level. That's the contention of a local Tea Party coalition, which thinks taxpayers are unwittingly subsidizing the lobbying efforts of some groups.
Citizens for Tax Fairness, a group founded by Ronald Mortensen, of Bountiful, wants the Legislature to consider reforming some lobbying rules to protect taxpayers from funding some organizations' efforts at the Capitol.
The south Davis County group suggests two major groups in the Beehive State are among the abusers: The Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah School Boards Association.
It hardly stops there, however, as many communities hire lobbyists to push their agenda. Ogden is one of those communities.
Mortensen, a self-described Tea Party examiner, believes the Legislature should prohibit any taxpayer-funded organization from lobbying or otherwise promoting an agenda at the Capitol without more disclosure.
"They hold golf tournaments, conventions and luncheons for legislators, all paid for with taxpayer funds, while citizens who oppose their agenda are forced to fight them on their own time and on their own dime," Mortensen said.
Mortensen says groups should be required to publish the names of and compensation for everyone carrying out or supporting any lobbying activities on their behalf, including their paid staffs. He also wants the groups to post a daily record of their lobbying activities and the cost breakdown.
Utah does have guidelines and registration rules in place for lobbyists.
Mark Thomas, director of state elections, said the rules basically allow the state to monitor the activities on the Hill of anyone paid to influence the Legislature.
But the issue of buying influence causes many officials to bristle at the idea someone is being paid to sway their vote, especially among some Top of Utah lawmakers.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he is opposed to hired lobbyists, but not opposed to hearing from representatives from local associations, such as ULCT.
He said he met recently with a lobbyist for Ogden City and wondered why the community would hire someone to see him, when local city representatives would be more effective. He said he has tried to initiate lobbyist reform in the past, only to fall short.
Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, said the First Amendment gives every citizen the right to speak but said he is personally more receptive to visits from local representatives than a hired spokesman.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, takes it personally when someone hires a lobbyist to see him. He wonders why officials don't directly contact him, as he is their representative.
The lobbying issue has initiated plenty of debate in Ogden. The city council authorized an expenditure of $20,000 in 2011 for state lobbying and $10,000 the year before but chose not to fund any lobbying this year. The mayor's office, however, was able to find $40,000 for a state lobbyist this year.
Mark Johnson, the city's chief administrative officer, thinks the city gets more than its bang for the buck.
"If you don't have a lobbyist, it can hurt you," Johnson said.
He likened the cost to paying for insurance to protect residents of the city. He said one big advantage of hiring a lobbyist is that they know all the lawmakers, not just local representatives.
Others offer a similar defense.
Kenneth Bullock, executive director of the ULCT, doesn't agree with the idea his organization shouldn't be allowed to lobby the Legislature. He said the league works to protect the interests of municipalities, which includes every city and town in the state, save one. He called the ULCT's effort at the Capitol a partnership with the Legislature to craft good laws for state residents.
Bullock sees no ethical issues related to how the organization is funded and the fact it has access to the Legislature. He said the league's efforts go beyond the Legislature to being proactive in working with other groups on issues ranging from transportation to development.
Farmington Mayor Scott Harbertson is president of the executive board of the ULCT and has some mixed emotions on the issue.
"Honestly, do I like the fact that there are lobbyists? In fact I don't, but we've got to protect our interests," Harbertson said.
Harbertson said the league helps track legislation and monitor activity in committees as a means of keeping communities in tune with issues that may affect them.
Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis County School Board, thinks using any taxpayer funds for lobbying is wrong.
He doesn't support the district paying fees for him to belong to a school board group, which then lobbies the Legislature. He says publicly funded groups shouldn't be financed in their aim to get even more funding from the state body.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, doesn't see a problem with groups lobbying the Legislature, but she has a different take when agencies send officials, who are paid from taxpayer revenues, to lobby the lawmaking body.
"If you count all of the agency heads who are here, those are also paid for by taxpayer money. This is an issue we've talked about for many years. Personally, I believe they should have to register, because they are lobbying," Lockhart said. State rules do not require government officials to register as lobbyists.
Mortensen said he did not actively seek sponsors for legislation making the changes, but he thinks it could happen with some public pressure.
"The only way that the lobbying reforms will pass is if the public is made aware of what is going on and legislators feel some pressure to do something."