The One Schmuck Rule

When reviewing all the bills each legislative session, there is a common question I find myself repeating: “What is the point of this bill?”

When you dig a little further, speak with the sponsor, or hear the bill presented, you’ll often hear mentioned they “have a constituent who had this problem. . . .”

I call this the One Schmuck Rule. In other words, one isolated individual is the reason for a bill that will likely have significant consequences for the entire population of Utah. (no aspersions meant by “schmuck” just a turn of phrase)

This year is no exception with bills being run that seem more like a bill looking for a problem than a problem looking for a bill. As is also so often the case, because the bill is written too narrowly to cover the particulars of the problem faced by this lone constituent, the unintended consequences can be grave and not always evident when the impassioned sponsor presents their bill for consideration.

There are two bills this session that I categorize under my One Schmuck Rule:

* HB43 Campaign Finance Reporting by Corporations

* HB44 Election Polling

These bills, by sponsor Representative Greg Hughes’ own admission, are because of the primary election battle his friend, former Representative Brad Daw faced against his opponent and eventual winner of that race, current Representative Dana Layton. Negative campaign pieces and push polls were sent by a group that opposed Mr. Daw, that he felt that he was unable to defend against and that contributed to his loss. As a result, he wanted the names of the people behind the actions made public.

The problem with both bills is that they cast a net far wider than the specific incident that encouraged their creation.

The polling bill has such a broad description of what polling actually consists of that it could technically require that any policy discussion held between two people would need to have the disclaimer that “I was not paid by anyone to ask your opinion.”

The finance reporting bill has even bigger problems and will create a loophole you could fly a space shuttle through. It would require any corporation (which means ANY organization, group, officially organized entity, etc.), not just in Utah, but worldwide, that takes an active role in any particular issue in Utah to divulge a list of donors that paid for the action. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea in the quest for more transparency, but the issue comes in how organizations are managed, how donors participate, etc. For example, someone could be a member of an organization, have no direct involvement or even knowledge of a particular action the organization takes, and have their name released as part of the list of donors/members whose contributions allowed the organization to act. Just think of the post-Prop 8 debacle with LDS Church members who donated funds, never imagining their names would be published far and wide–several receiving death threats. Further, it could also lump very small donors or even those that pay for membership, to be lumped in with donors of significant sums, in order to satisfy some of the specific reporting requirements of the bill regarding the amount spent by an organization.

But here is the real kicker, if you think this type of transparency might be a good thing, think again. The only thing this will encourage is for every single organization who may ever decide to take a political action, to create a PAC or PIC to funnel donations through, effectively taking advantage of the gaping loophole to hide donors forever.

We certainly stand on the side of transparency, but this bill is not the tool to achieve it. The advent of Citizens United has muddied the waters for the foreseeable future and until we decide to completely reform campaign finance laws, in every aspect, there will be no real substantive change, only small “one schmuck” bills.

Bills like these might give a losing candidate a little salve to rub on their wounds,  but instead of encouraging true transparency, they only serve to overly complicate the filing processes of many organizations and encourage the creation of more secretive PACs to protect donors.

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