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'97 was off-year for elections but not for contributions

Even in years when Utah lawmakers aren't running for office, the cash keeps flowing.

Corporations and political action committees gave nearly $1 million to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature in 1997, an off-election year.That is about half the amount spent in the 1996 election year and is expected to be about half of what will flow to candidates running in this year's general election.

"It's a lot of money. It buys a lot of access," said Sandy Peck of the Utah League of Women Voters. "The problem is, there's just not much to be done about it."

The hue and cry in Washington, D.C., about campaign finance reform hasn't filtered to Utah thus far. The only related legislation pending in the 1997 Legislature is a toothless resolution by Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell urging Congress to act quickly in resolving the controversy.

The amount of money spent by PACs and corporations does not include additional largesse levied on officeholders by their various lobbyists, according to annual statements compiled by the election office overseen by Lt. Gov. Olene Walker.

Lobbyists spent more than $100,000 on Utah lawmakers last year for meals, Utah Jazz tickets and other perks.

Big spenders include the husband and wife team of Miles "Cap" Ferry and Sue Ferry, who combined to spend more than $12,000 on lawmakers. Cap Ferry is a former Senate president, and he and his wife represent dozens of special interests ranging from tobacco giant Philip Morris to Questar Corp.

There are several anti-smoking bills in the Legislature this year, and last year the Legislature levied a 25-cents per pack tax on cigarettes. Questar, the parent company of Mountain Fuel Supply Co., also has interest in several bills pending before lawmakers, including one that would allow the company to extend service to parts of rural Utah at the expense of rate-payers.

Electrical deregulation was a big issue before the session, and Edward Rampton, lobbyist for the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems, spent more than $9,400 on legislators last year.

PACs are groups of like-minded individuals who combine to give money to candidates. Many are union- or business-related, such as the Utah Association of Realtors or the American Federation of Teachers.

Otherwise, there are few distinctions between PACs and corporations. PACs must report where they got the money. Corporations do not.

And where federal candidates are prevented from taking any corporate money and are limited in the amount they can take from PACs, that's not the case in Utah, where state candidates can take as much money as they want from any source. The only requirement is that they report it.

Political interests also can form PACs - indeed, the single largest political action committee is overseen by Gov. Mike Leavitt himself.

His Spring Gala Committee spent $371,650 in 1997 and still has a balance of $498,265, a considerable war chest considering Leavitt is only entering the second year of his second term.

Leavitt has said he will continue to raise money over the next three years for his own political needs and to help other Republican candidates. Also coming out of the fund are First Lady Jackie Lea-vitt's travel expenses, gifts and any non-state-related political expenses the governor accumulates.

If Leavitt opts not to run for a third term, he says the balance will be rolled into a nonprofit, public-policy education foundation.

Other large PAC contributions came from the Citizen Action by Public Employees, the committee formed by the Utah Public Employees Association, which gave $95,728.46; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 57, $30,966.95; Lawyers Involved for Utah, $40,964; AT&T PAC Mountain States, $50,821; and the Utah Education Association PAC, $33,986.34.

The UEA PAC had a year-end balance of $506,075.

Corporations gave more than $155,000 to legislative candidates in 1997, although some of that money flowed into the PACs.