Lobbyists gear up for new legislative session

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    By BRIAN D. HENDERSON

    With a grip and a grin, a clutch and a smile, a pat on the back and a slip of a business card, a thriving group of movers and shakers have converged on Salt Lake City this week to influence this year’s legislature. The impact can send ripples from the Utah Capitol all the way to Escalante and Hurricane.

    In fact, the annual renewal of the lobbying process often seems like a hurricane to those caught up in the storm.

    “Legislators can say till they’re blue in face that they’re not influenced by the freebies they get, but you’d have to be unfeeling and almost inhuman not to be influenced by that kind of gift giving. That does buy influence,” Mark Walsh said. He is a lobbyist for the Utah Association of Counties.

    Dan Jones, a political science professor at the University of Utah and renowned political pollster said he sees a more noble cause.

    “Our issues today are so much more complex. Good lobbyists educate, not manipulate. They try to influence legislators,” Jones said.

    He also said the public need not worry about corruption within lobbying circles. “A lobbyist can usually only lie once, and if they do it will get around,” Jones said, and ruin their reputation.

    Because Walsh represents an association, it is illegal for him to use money to influence legislators like a contract lobbyist, who is essentially influence-for-hire.

    “We have nothing to give them but the strength of our arguments,” Walsh said. “We develop positions and then talk to legislators about how the issues before them affect the areas where they live and the citizens of the state.”

    His association has a heavy stake in nearly every bill awaiting legislation this year that could impact local government. Those issues include taxes, transportation and roads, and public land issues that affect the tax base of counties, Walsh said.

    He said he also has his eye on bills that affect the administration of all aging, mental health, substance abuse and public health programs.

    Linda Plouzak, lobbyist for the Utah Parent Teacher Association is leading a coalition in the fight for a restriction on concealed weapons in schools, churches and private residences. She’s helping spearhead a mammoth petition drive to get the gun issue on the November ballot.

    “If we really believed the Legislature was going to address the issue, we wouldn’t need to go ahead with the initiative,” Plouzak said.

    Jones said, “One of most provocative issues this year is gun control, that’s already evident. The NRA won’t take a chance on not getting bills passed for gun control.” Before this year’s legislative session concludes, lobbyists from the American Cancer Society to the Utah Shooting Sports Council will get an ear from a senator or representative.

    For many to get their voice heard, they aim to please. It’s no mystery that lobbyists often give out Utah Jazz tickets and entertainment packages in exchange for an unstated but understood loyalty for a vote on a bill.

    “One of the lobbyists on the hill, a former executive director of the state Republican Party gave away car washes to legislators. They try to be as innovative as they can. And they do wine and dine,” Walsh said. He said he has a problem with buying influence like that.

    Those who will wield the most influence understand that it’s about establishing longevity in relationships with not only legislators, but other lobbyists, industry groups and the government, Walsh said.

    “You can push a bill all the way through the legislature only to have it meet the kiss of death when it meets the governor,” Walsh said, explaining the necessity of good relationships with all branches of government.

    Walsh said, “I’ve been involved with lobbying for almost 25 years and it never ceases to amaze me some of the coalitions of lobbyists that have come together in any given session.”

    Of lobby groups such as the Utah Education Association, Jones said, “People don’t understand how complicated education funding is. They must really study the legislative process. I don’t know what our 45 day session do without good lobbyists.”

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