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Power being purchased under cover of smoke, mirrors

Skyrocketing numbers of Utah businesses are sidestepping laws designed to ban them from donating money to directly influence federal elections.

In fact, records show Utah businesses managed to provide a whopping 12 percent - $1 of every $9 - of all money raised in Utah by federal parties and candidates during the 1995-96 election cycle.How could that happen when federal law for decades sought to ban such donations for fear that businesses and their big money would wield too much power over politicians?

A loophole in the law still allows businesses to donate without limit to national party arms to help with state-level races and "party-building" activities. So parties set up "federal" and "nonfederal" accounts.

The "nonfederal" funds - often called "soft money" - can still be spent in ways that indirectly benefit federal candidates. That ranges anywhere from the get-out-to-vote drives to some polling and ads promoting a party's overall philosophy.

But until recently, not many Utah businesses took advantage of that loophole.

For example, a Deseret News analysis of Federal Election Commission records for the 1993-94 election cycle found only $33,388 in soft money was donated to national parties from seven Utah corporations.

But in the recent 1995-96 cycle, records show that amount skyrocketed more than tenfold to $361,682 from 128 corporations. (Also, 90 percent of it went to arms of the national Republican Party, and only 10 percent to Democratic committees).

That amounted to 12 percent of the total $3.08 million raised by all congressional and presidential candidates and federal party arms from Utah donors.

Records suggest that party arms likely solicited (and not just received) the funds during the presidential election year because many donations came in identical amounts - which may be one reason for increased use of the loophole.

For example, donations of exactly $250 each came from 65 smaller Utah businesses - ranging from Dan's Tire Service in Roosevelt to Metcalf Mortuary in St. George - to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works mostly to elect Republicans to the U.S. House.

Still, the lion's share of the donations came from a relatively small number of businesses. In fact, the 11 largest such donors provided 74 percent of the corporate soft money from Utah.

The top 11 include: Huntsman Chemical Corp., $55,000; C. Dean Metropoulous & Co., $40,000; Elissar Technologies, $35,000; J.C. Penney Co., $28,000; E Excel International Inc., $25,000; Layton Construction Co., $20,000; Kennecott, $16,000; Huntsman Group Inc., and Leucadia National Corp., $15,000 each; and Amalgamated Sugar and Reagan Management Co., $10,000 each.

That also means those 11 companies provided 8.7 percent of the total money raised by federal parties and candidates in Utah.

Of course, businesses also take advantage of other loopholes to funnel even more money to candidates.

That includes individual donations from business executives and their families. Companies may also form "political action committees," to which their employees may donate, and which in turn spread money to candidates.

In short, laws that try to keep business money out of politics haven't succeeded - and likely never will. People are too resourceful at finding and using loopholes.

It may make more sense to do on the federal level what Utah has done at the state level. Utah allows corporations to make direct contributions to parties and candidates but requires their full disclosure.

That - plus some limits to prevent astronomical donations - may make the system more straightforward and easy to figure out and allow people to vote against candidates who take what they feel is too much or the wrong kind of money.

But don't look for such change any time soon. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has suggested it in current campaign reform debates. But it was immediately attacked as possibly giving businesses too much power over politicians.

Too many fail to realize that power and money is already there but just covered by the system's purple smoke and mirrors.