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Special interests provided 93.5% of donations to Utah legislators last year

This story first appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. You can find it in its entirety here.

Utah’s legislators didn’t need to raise much campaign money in 2019, since it was not an election year for them. They still amassed plenty — and special interest groups supplied 93.5% of it, about $14 of every $15.

Academics say that is unusual because in most states, studies say lawmakers raise about half of their money from individual voters and half from special interests.

Utah’s big disparity raises questions about what those special interests — including realtors, banks, drug companies, law firms, the oil industry, tobacco companies, outdoor advertisers and more — receive for their money.

Nobody says they directly buy votes. But some academics and donors say it purchases better access to the political process. Meanwhile, legislative leaders and other donors say it buys nothing and merely shows how some donors support politicians who tend to vote in ways they like.

The question was pertinent in 2019 as many special interests battled over tax reform that passed in a special legislative session, says Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center. It advocates for the poor, and as a nonprofit it cannot by law donate to campaigns. Tibbitts says it could not afford to do that even if it were legal.

Tibbitts says he and fellow advocates for the poor are at a disadvantage against big donors — and Crossroads was on the losing side, for example, in a battle over raising the sales tax on food, which it says hurts the poor.

“I wouldn’t say that people’s votes were bought,” Tibbitts says. “But the thing is, when somebody puts money into your campaign fund, you know that they could also put money into an opponent’s campaign fund. That’s a pretty persuasive argument.”

“People worry that politicians are more beholden to big donors than to their constituents,” says Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, which favors campaign finance reform. “So to have 93% of money come from special interests is super concerning.”

This story first appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. You can find it in its entirety here.

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