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FLAP SHOWS WHY LEGISLATORS MUST LIMIT INFLUENCE OF PACS

SHARE FLAP SHOWS WHY LEGISLATORS MUST LIMIT INFLUENCE OF PACS

A flap has arisen over 1992 legislative campaign reporting, and while lawmakers are complaining about how the story has been reported in the media, the real underlying concern once again is the influence of special-interest PAC operations on local elections.

The problem with the 1992 reporting developed through miscommunication, not outright crookedness, as best as I can tell from interviewing a number of those involved. But that doesn't mean the status quo is satisfactory.In the 1992 elections the Utah Public Employees Association - as unions with large political action committees do - put together a comprehensive political strategy. Part of that strategy was to help legislative candidates endorsed by the PAC, which is the political arm of the largest government employee union.

UPEA comes to the Legislature every year with a cartload of benefits it seeks for its members, from better retirement to pay raises to health-care reform. UPEA is one of the largest and most respected groups appearing on Capitol Hill.

According to Rob Jolley, a political consultant/lobbyist who does contract work for UPEA and other clients, in 1992 UPEA developed what Jolley considers the best registered voter list in the state. The list was broken out not only by legislative and Senate districts along the major four Wasatch Front counties but also by household. Mailing labels and computer discs were then made available to legislative candidates endorsed by the UPEA.

The union supports all kinds of candidates, but in general UPEA is a backer of lawmakers seeking re-election who support or view kindly the desires of government workers.

So the union PAC gave the mailing labels to various legislative candidates who used them to mail out brochures, issue papers, etc. But the problem arose when Jolley and UPEA officials didn't tell the candidates the value of the labels. Most of the 20 lawmakers who got the labels figured the value of the labels was insignificant.

As one GOP House leader says: "I could have gotten the labels from my county party for maybe $100." Jolley says that may be a bit low - the state Democratic Party was offering House candidates its constituent mailing labels for $500 a pop. In any case, when the UPEA filed its year-end PAC report in December 1992 it valued the labels at between $375 and $1,100, depending on how many a legislator got.

Most of the legislators, not informed of the UPEA's value, didn't even report the labels they got on their campaign disclosure reports - an oversight they now regret. And the discrepancy between the UPEA report on candidate giving and the candidates' reports can make it look as if something underhanded were going on.

"It was a simple case of miscommunication," says Jolley. "It all seems to be laid on us," says UPEA executive director Nancy Sechrest. "Don't these candidates have some responsibility to ask" the value of in-kind contributions?

The relatively high monetary value UPEA placed on the labels came from the gathering and computer work the PAC did in putting together voter-registration lists garnered from county clerks, Jolley says.

While some lawmakers are embarrassed, even angry, over the KTVX Channel 4 report - a bit miffed at UPEA for not telling them the "true" value of the labels - what this incident really shows is how smart PAC operators can ingrain themselves into the legislative campaign process, how special-interest money and information can be so valuable to candidates. UPEA did nothing wrong, nothing illegal. In fact, from its point of view it did something very right. It provided information, according to Jolley, that powerful incumbent lawmakers couldn't get anywhere else, in a timely manner and (so the legislators thought) for so little money that lawmakers didn't even report the gift on their campaign finance statements.

Some legislators are upset they got caught in the middle. The lawmakers are talking about amending the campaign-PAC reporting laws to make PACs clearly state the value of an in-kind contribution when it is made.

But that's covering up the sore with a Band-Aid, not treating the cause of the sore.

Special-interest influence on legislative campaigns needs to be addressed. Whether it's limiting overall PAC contributions to a percent of a campaign's total contributions, limiting individual PAC contributions or outlawing PAC contributions altogether, action needs to be taken.

This 1992 reporting episode may just blow over. But when so-called "government reform" bills are considered in the 1995 Legislature, limiting special interest giving should be on the agenda.

- U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Pat Shea says he has new poll results that make him feel good about his race against 18-year incumbent Orrin Hatch. Shea says his pollster, nationally recognized Bill Hamilton, shows if the election were held today Hatch would be favored by 60 percent of Utahns, Shea by 34 percent. As is normally the case in polling by candidates, Hamilton then rephrased questions hinting at possible Hatch weak points. Shea says when those questioned are told Hatch has served in Washington, D.C., for 18 years, "there is a huge shift." Shea closes to within 4 or 5 percentage points and undecided voters jumps to more than 15 percent. "We're making progress" and Hatch is vulnerable, Shea says.