Give some Utah legislators their due. They're creative when it comes to the use of their campaign accounts.
First the Deseret News revealed that campaign contributions are being spent on items and services that seemingly have no connection to running a campaign: $600 for horseshoes; $361 for tuxedo rental; and $63 for a new handbag. Now Deseret News political reporters have disclosed that not only are legislators paying for travel from their campaign accounts, some are being repaid with state funds.
Once more, this "double dipping" is legal so long as the double dip is declared as personal income and the taxes are paid.
However, we question whether individuals or political action committees that contribute to legislators' campaigns fully understand that their donations may be spent on goods and services other than the traditional campaign fare: lawn signs, pamphlets and, in a few circumstances, advertising. If contributors give knowing that legislators may travel on their dime, should those legislators then be permitted to then seek reimbursement from the state?
Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, believes there should be some controls on campaign fund expenditures. But Becker has been stymied in his efforts to move legislation on the issue this session. While the House might be persuaded to consider Becker's proposals, the Senate has not been supportive of campaign and lobby reforms because most senators "just don't see a problem," said Sen. President Al Mansell.
Under current law, there is no problem so long as legislators who withdraw funds from a campaign account for personal reasons declare it as income and pay taxes on it. The problem comes when legislators are reimbursed by the state for travel procured through campaign accounts and the money isn't repaid to the campaign account.
Equally troubling are legislators who dip into their campaign accounts for meals during the annual legislative session. With the exception of the $125 per session charge assessed by the Legislature for caucus lunches, many meals during the session are provided by lobbyists, advocates and corporations. While some pay the $125 assessment from their $42 a day meal per diem, about 20 legislators paid for the caucus lunches from their private accounts. Surely, then, the per diem needs to be considered additional income and declared for tax purposes, doesn't it?
Perhaps the answer lies in boosting pay for legislators. Lawmakers devote countless hours as they convene in meetings on and off Capitol Hill. They meet with constituents, respond to press inquiries and perform other related jobs. It can be a very difficult and thankless job. If lawmakers get a substantial pay raise, there would be no need to dip in campaign accounts or accept lobbyist gifts.
This page is, perhaps, most troubled when some legislators view campaign accounts as a sort of entitlement: that they can dip into donor funds because they work countless hours without compensation and because they often spend money in the course of their legislative service that is not eligible for state reimbursement.
Not all legislators operate under this philosophy. Many are meticulous with their record keeping and accounting. They're careful to declare campaign funds spent for personal purposes as income. Yet, these same people hesitate to support legislation that would hold their fellow lawmakers to the same standard.
And Utahns are left to wonder why.