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Utah races cost a bundle

2002 initiative, legislative spending broke records

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Welcome, Utahns, to big-time campaign spending in state races.

The 2002 elections set a high-water mark for legislative and citizen initiative spending, one that suggests that winning votes will become more costly in future elections. And the 2002 campaign was one without a high-profile statewide race such as governor or attorney general. There was no U.S. Senate race, either.

According to campaign finance reports due Monday night in the State Elections Office:

Almost $4.9 million was spent for and against the radioactive waste Initiative 1.

One state Senate race saw nearly $250,000 raised — and most of it spent — all for a job paying $100 a day.

Some of the top political action committees raised a half million dollars each.

The state Republican Party raised $1.3 million and spent $1.5 million on nonfederal races. The state Democratic Party raised $605,000 and spent $611,000.

The badly outspent Democrats lost ground in both the Utah House and Senate, partly due to the 2001 redistricting that saw minority-party incumbents lumped into districts with fellow Democrats.

It's difficult to say exactly how much, in total, was spent on the 91 legislative races in 2002. PACs gave money to individual candidates, who reported that amount as contributions and then spent the cash on their campaigns. To add up both PAC and candidate spending totals would be double counting. But some PACs also ran independent campaigns to help some candidates, and those expenditures wouldn't show up on candidate reports.

Likewise, political parties gave cash to some of their candidates. But parties also conducted turn-out-the-vote efforts and other political activity that helped their candidates, spending that wouldn't show up on the candidate reports.

But the huge amounts of cash flowing into state races and Initiative 1 is clear.

Candidates for the Utah House and Senate spent a combined $2.5 million. But they raised nearly $3 million, leaving a lot of cash in some incumbents' war chests for future races.

Corporations spent $5.4 million in the 2002 races; PACs donated $4.1 million; and Political Issue Committees — dominated by the radioactive waste spending — a little more than $4.9 million.

The fight over Initiative 1 cost an historic $4.85 million, with opponents, mostly radioactive waste giant Envirocare of Utah, pouring $4.05 million into the campaign to stop the measure that would have raised taxes and prohibited the company from taking "hotter" radioactive waste.

"Envirocare of Utah was forced to spend $4 million just to defend itself from the burden that Initiative 1 would've put on them," said Hugh Matheson, the chairman of Utahns Against Unfair Taxes. "Envirocare would've been put out of business if this initiative had passed; this campaign ultimately was about corporate survival."

Backers of the initiative, Utahns for Radioactive Waste Control, spent $809,880, a big chunk of that coming from Utah Education Association, the National Education Association and the Crusade for the Homeless. The taxes that would have been raised by the initiative would have been spent on education and the homeless.

Waste spending was not the only record set. The campaign for Senate District 4 on Salt Lake County's east bench blew away previous legislative spending records. House Minority Whip Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, challenged Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Sandy, in a race that saw $219,000 in spending between the two camps. Arent won 56 to 44 percent.

Despite being outspent by Poulton by nearly $50,000 in a district more Republican than not, Arent, a Democrat, picked up a victory in what was easily regarded the most hard-fought legislative race of the season.

Poulton spent $133,000 compared to Arent's $86,000.

"I hope no one ever has to spend that kind of money again," Arent said Tuesday. "The good news is the person who has the most to spend doesn't always win."

Arent's campaign contributions of just over $108,000 came mostly from individuals, the reports show, while Poulton had the support of many businesses such as attorneys, banks and real-estate agents to come close to $125,000.

Poulton could have spent even more. The Senate GOP leadership PAC — a PAC used by incumbent GOP senators to get themselves re-elected — doled out $155,000 last year, much of it to Poulton. But the PAC ended the year with $87,000 in cash, so Poulton could have spent even more from that fund if his fellow GOP senators had agreed.

Arent says she believes the spending in the race was an anomaly — a symptom of two legislative incumbents eager for battle to hang on for another four years.

"A Republican in Provo wouldn't have to spend that much. It is always going to be more expensive in the contest races."

But, as Arent's race shows, the candidate who spends the most money isn't always assured of victory.

A $25,000 difference between incumbent Sen. Ed Allen, D-Ogden, and his challenger, Republican David L. Thomas, still left Allen ousted in a district that had been redrawn to be more Republican.

The Senate Democrats' PAC dumped $2,000 in Allen's race so he could retain his seat in Senate District 18, and Allen forked over $5,000 of his own cash. In all, Allen spent $41,000 in a race targeted by the Republicans for victory.

Still, an austere campaign by Thomas of just $16,000 delivered enough votes to defeat Allen by 51 percent to 49 percent.

Republican James Evans also won in the most Democratic Senate district in the state — Salt Lake City's west side — despite being outspent by his Democratic opponent, Nisa Sisneros.

Sisneros' expenditures totaled $29,000 compared to Evans' $22,000, reports show.

Groups give money to legislative candidates to gain an ear when issues important to them come to the general session — which starts in just two weeks. Here are a few of the main givers in legislative races:

The Utah Education Association, the main teachers union with 16,000 members, spent $403,000 out of its PAC last year.

The Utah Public Employees Association, the main state employees union, spent $331,000.

Both the UEA and UPEA's political efforts could be harmed by a new law, recently upheld in the courts, that stops automatic payroll deductions of political donations by government employees. Both groups' PAC donations could dwindle if members have to write out checks monthly or yearly to the unions.

The Legislature decides state employee raises and in effect sets teacher raises through the Weighted Pupil Unit, its basic education funding formula.

The Utah Beer Wholesalers spent $34,700 on candidates last year. The 2003 Legislature will consider raising the beer wholesale tax.

The Utah Bankers Association spent $28,000, and individual banks tens of thousands more, while the Utah League of Credit Unions spent $49,000 and individual credit unions spent tens of thousands more (American First Credit Union spent $73,000 and Mountain America Credit Union spent $30,000) in 2002. Banks and credit unions are expected to fight in the upcoming session over taxation of the for-profit banks and nonprofit credit unions.

Finally, the filings show that Gov. Mike Leavitt closed his campaign account 18 months ago. But don't read much into that, his aides say. If Leavitt decides later this year to run for an unprecedented fourth term in 2004, he'll simply reopen his campaign account.

Leavitt has kept his two PACs operating. His special projects PAC has $312,194 in cash; his Western Republican PAC has $65,250 in cash, latest reports show. The governor is also keeping up his considerable fund-raising efforts, in part to fund his new Institute for State Studies think tank.

Contributing: Amy Joi Bryson and Donna Kemp Spangler.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; spang@desnews.com