Few politicians are willing to make it harder on themselves to raise campaign funds, and a Utah legislative task force has been struggling for several months with even the idea of substantive campaign reform.
Tuesday, task force members actually made some progress but only after they quickly shot down a proposal by two of their colleagues. After some harsh words, members decided to at least attempt to reach some unity instead of just abandoning the effort altogether.Several task force members said it was wrong to believe that contributions from so-called special interest groups, like labor unions, are inherently bad and need to be controlled. "I don't believe that," said Sen. Rex Black, D-Salt Lake.
Oddly enough, several task force members had to leave the meeting early because they had to get to Midway, Wasatch County, to make their tee times in a legislative golf tournament sponsored by the Utah Public Employees Association - one of the largest special interest contributors to legislative campaigns.
Reps. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, and Kelly Atkinson, D-West Jordan, drafted a bill that would - through a relatively complicated set of formulas - encourage candidates to voluntarily limit the amount of money they raise from special interest groups and to raise at least half of their campaign funds from within their legislative districts.
But other members of the Campaign Reform Task Force didn't like the Tanner-Atkinson bill at all. "Unfair and unworkable," said Black.
After listening to colleagues' criticisms for an hour, Tanner, co-chairman of the task force, curtly said no task force members besides himself and Atkinson had even asked staff attorneys to draft legislation - and that none had made any constructive suggestions at all. "If all you are going to do is question and criticize . . . tear down suggestions, then the work of this task force is completed," Tanner snapped.
Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham, R-Nephi, said he was offended by Tanner's tone. "No one is `right' on this matter. We can reject" any proposal task force members don't like, said Black- ham. He then made a series of suggestions, which Tanner and other members approved, and a new bill along those lines will be drafted for later consideration.
Task force members decided that to get around constitutional questions of free speech, any reform bill will make campaign finance restrictions voluntary. If a candidate declines to sign a voluntary affidavit when he files his candidacy, he won't have to follow any of the new rules and can raise and spend money under current law. Basically, Utah doesn't control campaign finance at all - a candidate can raise and spend money for any "legal" purpose, raise any amount of money from any person, business or association and can spend his campaign funds in any way he sees fit - even give it to himself.
Candidates who agree to contribution limits can only accept individual contributions (from people, businesses or political action committees) of $1,000 or 10 percent of their overall campaign fund-raising, whichever is greater, task force members tentatively decided.
Candidates can't give their campaign funds to other candidates, task force members decided. That is common practice now, where legislators seeking leadership posts dole out thousands of dollars to party colleagues hoping they'll vote for them as leaders after the November elections.
And candidates can only contribute up to 20 percent of their campaign funds themselves. That's an attempt to stop rich candidates from "buying" an election.
Task force members didn't decide how to stop the "laundering" of contributions. For example, if a labor PAC could only give $1,000 donation to a candidate but really wanted to give $10,000, PAC officials could turn around and give 10 trusted members of their association $1,000 each and ask them, as individuals, to give that candidate the $1,000. The Tanner-Atkinson bill seeks to stop such shenanigans with investigations and administrative fines levied by the lieutenant governor's office.
But Blackham and others don't like fining candidates. They suggest that any candidate who accepts contributions in excess of the voluntary limits simply be required to return to the donor the part of the contribution that exceeds the limits. "If (the candidate) refuses to comply, I suppose we might have to have some kind of penalty," said Blackham.