Better UTAH Beat Episode 56 – July 16, 2013

Tomorrow the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee will consider a bipartisan proposal that would add much-needed limits to campaign contributions in Utah. Sponsored by Representative Kraig Powell, a Republican from Heber City, and Representative Brian King, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, the bill would provide reform to Utah’s currently broken campaign finance system. In fact, Utah is just one of four states that does not have limitations on campaign donations. The other three are Missouri, Oregon, and Virginia.

The bill takes seriously campaign finance reform that was suggested by a 2008 commission put together by then-Governor Jon Huntsman called the Commission on Strengthening Democracy. The nonpartisan commission was initially formed as a way to understand why voter participation is so low in Utah, and to suggest alternatives for improving voter turnout. As of the 2012 Election, Utah was ranked 39th in the nation for voter turnout, with a 56 percent voter turnout rate. But this ranking is actually high for Utah, and is likely attributed to Mitt Romney’s run for the White House. In 2008 we were ranked 48th in the Nation, barely edging out Arkansas, West Virginia, and Texas.

The details of Powell and King’s proposed bill aren’t in yet, but according to an op-ed they wrote over the weekend, they’ll likely push for reforms based on the Commission on Strengthening Democracy. The committee recommended that individuals, corporations, political action committees, and labor unions all be subject to the following limitations:

  • $10,000 for statewide office candidates

  • $5,000 for legislative offices

  • $5,000 for state school board positions

What kind of effect would these limitations have on current office seekers? Well, not much, unfortunately. Most state legislators don’t solicit donations that are much larger than these limits. And many rural legislators run campaigns for only a couple thousand dollars. But there are some notable exceptions. For example, John Swallow received over 10 donations over $10,000. Governor Gary Herbert received dozens of donations that were well over $10,000 dollars, with some donations reaching a staggering $100,000.

It raises some important questions: Why does a Republican incumbent–a shoe-in because he is both Republican and an incumbent–need such large donations? What exactly does a $100,000 donation buy a local company? Surely there must be some influence gained for donating that much money.

Imagine the last time someone gave you a gift. Was it a birthday present? A Christmas present? Didn’t you feel obligated to return the favor? Or imagine that your friend gives you a present, but you didn’t give her or him a present. You felt bad, didn’t you? Didn’t you feel that you ought to reciprocate by giving your friend a gift? American society, whether we like it or not, functions under an exchanged based logic. We expect that our good intentions will be reciprocated with equally good intentions. It isn’t even a stretch to expect that the same logic applies to campaign donations, as well.

For the most part, Utahns and their elected leaders are people of genuine integrity. But, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is nothing like the power of the dollar to influence the amount of power that any individual yields. And there is no question that the dollar yields enormous influence over each of our lives. Limiting campaign contributions could go a long way to limiting that influence. Let’s hope the legislature agrees.

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