Utah isn’t exactly known for its strict campaign finance laws, and one area of particular concern is the use of so-called “dark money” in elections – money that is spent to influence voters but who’s source is ultimately hidden from the public. Generally speaking, the donor wishing to remain hidden will funnel funds through a 501(c)(4), named after the IRS code that designates “social welfare” groups that are allowed to participate in politics so long as less than half of their spending goes towards political activities.
[pullquote]Those wishing to flaunt the law in an attempt to influence our elections deserve to be punished, and Daw’s legislation provides one of many needed solutions to help clean up our election process.[/pullquote]Though 501(c)(4)’s were originally intended to be for things like volunteer fire departments, they have quickly been perverted into something much more nefarious. The reality is that these groups can accept unlimited donations from corporate, union, or individual sources and they are not required to disclose the source of these donations. To make matters worse, the IRS has been extremely lax in actually enforcing rules to make sure that these organizations don’t exceed political spending limits.
And Representative Brad Daw (Republican – Orem) knows a thing or two about how dark money can be used against a candidate during an election.
A minor figure in the Utah political world, former Attorney General John Swallow is in the middle of defending criminal allegations that he took advantage of the 501(c)(4) code to defend the payday loan industry from lawmakers as they attempted to implement state and federal regulations on the industry. Daw got caught in the crossfire when he attempted to clamp down on an industry that charges, on average, 459 percent annual interest on loans. It is widely believed that the negative campaigning, fueled through a web of dark money, cost Daw his seat during a 2012 primary battle.
Of course, Daw has since reclaimed his seat and, this year, he is attacking dark money head on with HB 52 – Political Contribution Reporting Amendments.
The bill is just 7 lines of proposed code and states that it should be a class B misdemeanor if someone conspires with another to hide a political contribution that would otherwise have to be reported if they were donated to an organization directly for political purposes.
And this point is what will might kill Daw’s bill. Lawmakers have traditionally shied away from any campaign finance laws with actual teeth and restrictions on campaign donations. Interestingly, lawmakers often counter with the claim that simple reporting of donations is sufficient when it comes to campaign finance – where dark money is intended to specifically circumvent even this most basic of requirements, it is possible that lawmakers could be swayed to vote in favor of the legislation. Conversely, some politicians claim that dark money will always find a way into the system – almost taking a defeatist attitude towards the whole situation.
Though Daw’s legislation isn’t going to stop someone from committing a crime, it will at least provide a clear cut violation that the law can prosecute against, rather than potentially allowing people to wiggle away without punishment. Those wishing to flaunt the law in an attempt to influence our elections deserve to be punished, and Daw’s legislation provides one of many needed solutions to help clean up our election process. It will, no doubt, cause heartburn for lawmakers, but if we are going to be serious about cleaning up the system we must take such steps to make our elections function.
To contact Representative Daw, click here or call 801-850-3608
|Impact on Average Utahn||2|
|Need for Legislation||4|