Committee Punts on Campaign Finance Cap Bill

Ut moneyProposed legislation that would put caps on campaign contributions from Representative Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City), hit yet another road block Wednesday as the Government Operations Interim Committee punted on the issue, asking that King continue to work on the legislation prior to introducing the bill to the general body come January.

[pullquote]”Corporations are people. They are up here because we change the rules on them on a regular basis without even contacting or talking to them.” Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City)[/pullquote] The proposed legislation originated from the 2008 Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy where it was unanimously agreed upon by the bipartisan commission.

“This will increase involvement by the public in elections, increase the confidence of the residents of the state of Utah about what us, as their elected officials are doing up here at the legislature,” King told the committee, explaining that the main thrust of his bill is to into place some limits for statewide, legislative, school board, and judges.

Under King’s bill, statewide candidates would be limited to receiving $10,000 in contributions from a single individual or organization per election cycle while legislators, school board members, and judges would be limited to $5,000 per individual or organization per cycle.

“Those [levels] in my experience, are quite generous limits.” King added.

At his core, King is worried that a lack of limits causes single donors to “disproportionately impact and influence candidates.” He would then point to the fact that Utah is only one of four states that do not currently have any sort of limit on campaign contributions…and that two of those four states, Utah and Virginia, have had significant scandals related to campaign finance. Utah, with the John Swallow Attorney General scandal and Virginia with former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell who was recently convicted of accepting $140,000 in illegal gifts and loans.

Unsurprisingly, there was pushback by those who have a lot to lose by putting limits on campaign contributions.

The more you restrict [contributions], the more you cause creativity.” Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City) quipped, who feels that disclosure is the key to avoiding any appearance of wrongdoing. Jenkins would also add that if he were to receive a high single donation, it would give him heartburn and that he would make the personal decision to avoid such donations.

[pullquote]The people of the state of Utah, with all the disclosure in the world, need us to self regulate – Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City)[/pullquote]Representative King also appears to be dealing with confusion and fear in relation to the legislation. Representative Douglas Sagers (Republican – Tooele) expressed concern that he would be unable to self-fund his own campaign. Despite assurances that various state and federal laws and legal decisions have already made it clear that candidates can contribute as much of their own money as possible to their campaigns, Sagers still seemed confused and asked that clarifying language be added.

Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan) was concerned that the bill treats monetary donations differently than it does other forms of political speech an individual can engage in on a campaign, such as volunteering. Ivory also questioned why there were no rules related to advocacy groups engaging in political speech in Kings bill—an interesting tactic considering that King and the Democratic party have attempted to prevent such unregulated speech in other pieces of legislation both locally and nationally.

Former Utah Democratic Party Chairman and Salt Lake Senator Jim Dabakis reminded the committee that recent polling has shown that few Utahns who don’t work politics are even aware that there is a Lieutenant Governor, much less that the Lieutenant Governor is in charge of elections, and even fewer who know that the Lieutenant Governor has a website dedicated to campaign contributions.

Without naming names, Dabakis added that during the primary election of this year, one candidate received $49,500 in contributions between the April convention and the June primary, all from a single constituent.

“The people of the state of Utah, with all the disclosure in the world, need us to self-regulate…We are hearing too much from people with skin in the game and not enough from the citizens,” Dabakis added.

Dabakis was referring to Representative Brad Dee (Republican – South Ogden), who has received 12 donations of $1,000, three donations of $2,500, and three donations of $5,000. He currently serves as the current House Majority Leader, and is potentially in line to become the next Speaker of the House—one of the most powerful positions in the state.

Senator Jenkins took umbrage at Dabakis’ comments and the attempt to disparage corporations. “Corporations are people. There are shareholders. Corporations are people. They are up here because we change the rules on them on a regular basis without even contacting or talking to them. So all people lobby their legislators to try and protect themselves – that is what it has turned into here, is a protection game because of the things we do…if you take their rights away, you take my rights away as a shareholder” Jenkins then noted that he was at a recent fundraiser where it was commented to him that businesses have to participate so that the rules are not changed on them without access.

During public comment, Jenn Gonnelly with the League of Women Voters agreed that there was no silver bullet to increase voter participation, however she felt that King’s bill would go a long way to increase trust in the system from the public. She would urge the committee to pass the bill out with a favorable recommendation.

Her plea would fall flat. The committee opted instead to put off any decision, and reevaluate the topic in November.

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