Power is difficult to come by in politics

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
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We hear a lot about power today. Who has it. Who doesn’t have it. Who wants it. Paul Rolly of the Salt Lake Tribune has twice devoted column space in the last week to discussing power, first in a special column about SB100 and second in his usual column, talking about clean air advocates.

Rolly’s prefered term for those without power is losers. The winners are those with easy access to power.

“The Utah Legislature is filled each year with what I would call the winners and the losers,” says Rolly. The comparison might seem blunt, but it is true.

In this state, according to Rolly, losers are usually Democrats, and winners are usually Republicans. Losers usually favor issues that disproportionately concern the poor and disempowered. And winners usually favor the rich and corporate interests. Power seeks power. He might have added, but didn’t, that losers are usually poor and winners are usually rich.

In fact, the connection between winning power and gaining money is durable enough to be a social law. And even in America’s more transparent and fair democracy, money still wins.

But that’s not to say that power and money are always associated. Rolly points to Utah Moms for Clean Air as a good example of a powerless group that has managed to gain a little influence. Granted, air quality has finally become the issue du jour–and Utah Moms has been hammering at it when it wasn’t a popular talking point, but their ability to finally drive people toward an issue is commendable. Other organizations, like HEAL and the Utah Physicians group, have also brought significant attention to the problem of clean air.

Earlier this week, a group of LGBT activists gathered to protest the Senate’s inaction on SB100. It was an escalation of the blue notes that were taped last week on the Senate doors, a plea for Senators to debate publicly–not in a closed caucus–the non-discrimination bill. Like the clean air supporters, this group of people doesn’t have much power. But they are good at drawing attention to power.

But drawing attention to issues (which the powerless are good at doing), doesn’t mean change is happening. In a case study in opposites, it is worth noting that the powerful aren’t so good at drawing attention to issues, and with good reason. In fact, their main concern is keeping attention away from issues. But this is why stricter lobbying rules and campaign finance laws are necessary.

That’s why we support Sen. Todd Weiler’s bill that would require disclosure for what he calls “dark consulting.” Namely, if you have an expert helping you, even if you aren’t paying them, you ought to disclose that relationship. Donated time is a valuable asset to a campaign and can play a big role in its success or failure. By not requiring disclosure of that time, this valuble asset is hidden from voters’ views despite its possible influence on the outcome.

Bills like this are important because they level the playing field by allowing the attention the powerless bring to issues to translate into legislative action. Those same lobbying rules force attention onto the activities of the powerful, and allow conversations to occur that could be instrumental in stopping some of their more nefarious activities.

As always, the difference between winning and losing, between power and a lack thereof, are not always obvious. But ensuring that lobbyist actions happen in the light of day is one sure way of making sure that difference is a little bit smaller.

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