In September, lawmakers on the Government Operations Interim Committee effectively punted on taking action on the issue of campaign contribution limits. On Wednesday, the chickens came home to roost during the final meeting of the committee prior to the start of the 2015 legislative session.
Representative Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City) cited the low voter turnout from the recent election as additional evidence showing that people are disconnected from their government and choose not to participate. One of these reasons, King argued, was because the public has a general feeling that elections can be bought by individuals and companies who in turn have undue influence on elected officials.
King would go on to add that, though he felt that members on the committee, and indeed most if not all of the legislature, had the moral fortitude not to be influenced by donations, the public need only to look at the recent headlines surrounding the Swallow scandal to prove that Utah isn’t immune to money influencing elections and officeholders.
“Perception is important,” King noted in his defense, “and I think that we have to recognize that if we are increasing the likelihood that the citizens of the State of Utah look at us and think ‘okay, they are trying to clean up their act a little bit’ – it may be that the ‘act’ does not need to be cleaned up because we are acting with relative purity – but their perceptions are important.” He added that Utah is just one of four states that do not currently impose campaign limits.
King’s proposed legislation was refined from September’s meeting to reduce fears and clarify that campaign finance limits would be adjusted for inflation, prevent aggregate limits (as allowed after the recent FEC v. McCutcheon case), and self-funded campaigns would still be allowed under the proposed legislation.
One big sticking point two months ago surrounded the difference between contributing time to a campaign versus money. King’s response to this was to specify that if the labor is paid for by another individual, say by a labor union, it has to be reported; true, unpaid volunteer time, would not be reported.
“We want to encourage individuals to get involved in the political process, support the candidate of their choice. We want the candidate appealing to individuals in a way that causes those individuals to be motivated to volunteer their time – that’s a good thing,” King emphasized. “This is a line that we need to draw between money and time.”
After his initial presentation, the hearing soon devolved into well worn arguments on both sides of the discussion.
Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City) has consistently fought King on such legislation, and Wednesday was no different.
“Democrats are getting slaughtered in this state, they have had big issues with these elections… and I look at this I say ‘Well, this helps Democrats and it hurts Republicans’ because I have more large donors that want to donate on the Republican side and less on the Democratic side. This means that you are going to restrict me and help even that playing field. Certainly that takes away my rights.” Jenkins added.
King would counter by saying that “[this legislation] may have the effect of having greater limitations on Republicans to raise money [at this time], but if Democrats had a supermajority, you would have to say the same thing. It doesn’t bother me at all to say ‘are we handicapping to some extent the ability of people who are already in positions of power to maintain their power because we are limiting the amount of money they can give to them?’ Yeah, sure, I’m okay with that.”
Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) would take the opportunity to emphasize King’s feelings that campaign finance legislation would increase the public’s confidence in the system, stating that “we shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”
During a close roll call vote, King’s bill would ultimately fail to get the blessing of the committee. Due to committee rules, the recommendation has to have the support of a majority of the House member and a majority of Senate members. King’s bill received the approval of House members, however a majority was not had from the senators sitting on the committee.
King can still run the proposed legislation during the 2015 session, however it will not have the stamp of approval from the committee, making its passage more difficult.