What does a 50K campaign contribution get you?

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
Since Governor Gary Herbert first ran for the post in 2010, he has received eight donations over 50,000 dollars and around 100 donations over 10 thousands dollars. Herbert is rolling in the dough.

With all that money, it’s a reasonable question to ask what donors are getting. Though Herbert is, hopefully, above any sort of pay-to-play scheme, it makes sense to average thinking Utahns like us that a donation of such proportions must provide some level of access or influence that the rest of us aren’t getting. It is also an excellent reason for enacting campaign contribution limits in Utah.

Utah is one of six states without any limit whatsoever on contributions to state candidates. The other five states are Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon and Virginia. These states place absolutely no limit on contributions–not from individuals, not from state political parties, not from political action committees (or PACs), not from corporations, and not from Unions. Even Texas, the Wild West on so many elections-related issues, bans corporations from contributing to candidates.

Still, and despite massive donations to many statewide candidates, Utah is slow to join the rest of the United States and enact limits. Currently there are five bills that are in some way related to campaign finance reform.

Three of the bills are sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, a Republican from Heber. His bills all seek to put limits on campaign contributions. The other two bills, one by Rep. Patrice Arent and the other by Rep. Brian King, both Democrats from Salt Lake County, also are sponsoring bills that would put limits on campaign contributions. None of the bills are getting much attention or movement yet, but any one of them could be a significant step in the right direction toward curbing some of the abuses we see in this state.

In the meantime, and in case campaign contribution limits are not put in place by the legislature, we’ve made serious improvements to our campaign contribution database. The database, called Follow the Money, is a project of the ABU Education Fund. It is designed to make campaign contributions more transparent by allowing any individual with internet access to look up any given candidate or donor and find out how much money is being passed around.

The improvements, which we hope will make it easier for people of all levels of technological sophistication to use it, allow an individual to search across years, candidates, organizations, and financial filings to get a grasp on just where the money is going. And, since the data is raw, users can download what they find as a spreadsheet file that can then be analyzed in any number of ways. We hope more and more Utahns will start using it.

Campaign finance reform remains a vital element for improving the culture of democracy in Utah. Despite protests from high-yielding fundraisers, it is hard to imagine that a 50,000 dollar donation doesn’t give someone more access to the Governor than the person who is only able to give 50 dollars–let alone the majority of Utah citizens who aren’t donating at all.

No wonder House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who has plans of her own to take over the governor’s office, has been noticeably silent on campaign finance reform. She must be thinking, “How can I compete with that?” But Lockhart’s silence is particularly concerning given the aftermath of the John Swallow scandal. Our state legislators must be extra vigilant in considering opportunities to reform campaign financing–even if that means weakening the Speaker’s ability to out fundraise Governor Herbert.

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