The return of fall brings the return of college football, along with a perk offered to all members of the Legislature: free admission to every game at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.
It’s part of the universities’ efforts to engage with lawmakers, build relationships and tee up issues for the upcoming legislative session, university officials say. But those who monitor money and politics say the public deserves more information about the practice.
Under state lobbying laws, the free tickets to games at Sun Devil Stadium and Arizona Stadium qualify as “special events,” not gifts. That means as long as all 90 members of the Legislature are invited, the schools don’t have to report who actually took them up on it.
At least one lawmaker has expressed discomfort with the offer. Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, recently told ASU lobbyists the events feel “a little too special” to accept.
“It’s a good thing that these highly entertaining games are designated as special events so that they could not possibly be construed as ‘gifts that are designed to influence the member’s or employee’s official conduct,’” Epstein wrote in an email to the lobbyists, a copy of which she sent The Arizona Republic. The gift wording is a reference to state law, which prohibits that.
Kendra Burton, ASU’s senior director of state relations, said that sort of critical response is rare. ASU has invited state lawmakers to football games for at least 20 years, lobbyist reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office show. UA has done the same, also for at least 20 years.
“It’s an opportunity basically for us to engage with lawmakers. We’re not providing them any tangible gift of value,” Burton said. “Lawmakers can come and engage with our faculty, our experts in the field, answer questions, build those relationships, things of that nature.”
Tickets are about $65 each for Burton’s department to purchase. That’s less than the general-public ticket price, which can be as much as a few hundred dollars for that club level area. Lawmakers sit in the San Tan Ford Club and schmooze with ASU officials, administrators and faculty. UA offers lawmakers stadium seats or Skybox Club seats, depending on the game and ticket availability. Ticket prices for the university ranged from about $40 to $110 in 2019, a spokesperson said.
ASU spent $4,455 on football tickets and $10,350 on tailgates for House and Senate members during the 2019 football season, according to lobbyist reports. The tailgates were discontinued after that year.
In Tucson, UA reported more than $6,900 in expenses for football games in the 2019 season, more than $10,200 in 2018 and $8,660 in 2017.
UA officials declined requests for an interview to learn more about the practice.
Northern Arizona University has “on occasion” invited all members of the state Legislature to a campus football game in Flagstaff, according to spokesperson Kimberly Ott. The last time they did so was in 2017, but no one attended.
Offering free tickets in this way is “not a great approach from a public interest perspective,” said Pete Quist, deputy research director at OpenSecrets, a national organization that tracks money in politics.
“The idea that you give a gift to all lawmakers doesn’t make it not a gift,” he said.
Football falls under ‘special events’
Arizona state law carves out athletic events as one of several “special events for legislators” that are allowed expenses for lobbyists.
Lobbyists cannot legally give lawmakers gifts with value over $10 or gifts to influence their conduct. But things like games, parties, dinners and entertainment are permitted, if lobbyists follow the rules in terms of who they invite — all members of the full Legislature or either chamber, or any committee.
ASU and UA officials said they invite all 90 members to the games.
Burton said ASU’s government and community engagement office buys football tickets from the athletics department to invite lawmakers, other state representatives, local council members or county officials to games. The goal is to socialize with those people and have them meet ASU experts, she said.
Lawmakers indicate which games they want to go to, and the lobbying office makes sure their tickets are reserved.
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UA leaders see football games in a similar light as a way to bring people together.
“Football game activities offer outreach and relationship-building opportunities between elected officials and community leaders, UA leadership, Arizona Regents, local elected officials, Tribal leaders, and students,” UA spokesperson Pam Scott wrote in an email.
Epstein, the state representative, said she regularly accepts things like Zoom calls, workshops or conferences, including through universities, but the football games feel too much like entertainment.
“Educating legislators, fine, but entertainment, draw the line, and maybe the appropriate line is one football game ticket per legislator,” she said.
As for learning more about the university, Epstein said, “I don’t think you need season tickets to do that.”
ASU now just does this for football games, in part because the games lend themselves to more talking and socializing — the games are long, they show campus culture and they happen before the legislative session starts.
The past few years ASU pushed for state investments in its engineering and technology programs, so people from the engineering school would come to the games to talk with lawmakers. President Michael Crow, the provost and other university executives are often also around.
No disclosure of lawmakers who go
No more than four or five lawmakers typically attend any given Sun Devil game, Burton said. Attendance usually is varied, but there is one “regular.” ASU would not say who that person is.
Nineteen legislators requested tickets during the 2019 season, according to an ASU spokesperson. UA averages about five lawmakers per game, Scott said.
About a decade ago, ASU saw higher demand. Combined with higher ticket prices, ASU was spending much more on the tickets. During the 2009 football season for example, the university spent $36,000 on games, state lobbyist records show.
Unlike for expenses like food and travel, state law does not require lobbyists report which public officials accept the football tickets. All that needs to be reported is a description of the event, date, location, name of legislative body invited and total cost.
Quist at OpenSecrets said disclosure of who is accepting the tickets is important.
“The public has a right to know where legislators and which specific legislators are being lobbied by organizations,” he said.
“It would be important to be able to see which lawmakers are accepting tickets. Organizations, whether they’re universities or another kind of organization, tend not to just give things away, so there is the idea here that influence is probably a piece of it.”
‘Favorable impression in your heart’
Epstein said she thinks it’s not so much about which lawmakers are accepting tickets, but about why this is allowed under law.
She said the football games sound like a great time and will probably give lawmakers “a really wonderful, favorable impression in your heart” toward the university.
“Is that really OK?,” she said. “My concern is that everybody should have access to legislators in a fair way, and a huge organization like ASU should not have an extra special way to have access to legislators.”
Quist said Arizona is not the only state that allows special events to be reported differently than typical lobbying, but he thinks they should require more information to allow greater transparency to the public.
“Certainly providing something of value to legislators should be considered lobbying or contributions of some sort … This would seem more like a lobbying transaction and it should be disclosed,” he said.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Martha McSally sings national anthem
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Martha McSally sang the national anthem at the Arizona State-Utah game at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday.
Sun Devil Athletics, Arizona Republic
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