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County may OK revised campaign finance law

Lower contribution limits and a cap on political party donations may be enough of a tweak to push new campaign finance reforms through the Salt Lake County Council today.

The reforms, the latest in a batch of ethics reforms by county leaders, stalled out last month amidst concerns from County Council members but could sail through with a donation limit lowered to $2,000 and a $10,000 cap on in-kind donations from political parties. The $2,000 limit is less than half of the previous $5,000 cap placed by former acting mayor Alan Dayton in the waning days of the Nancy Workman administration last year.

"I'm doing this because I really think it's the right thing to do," said Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who drafted the proposed ordinance. "There have never been any at the county until last year. We have never run elections with limits."

Wilson's proposal would also alter the number of allowable contributions. Previously, donors could contribute up to the maximum amount each non-election year, as well as before a convention, before the primaries and before the general election. The new proposal would not allow contributions in non-election years.

And political parties can only contribute up to the $10,000 limit between the primary and general election. That limit, however, only applies to in-kind donations like billboards, television commercials or other endorsements done with the consent and coordination of the candidate.

Political parties could still make unlimited in-kind donations to endorse a candidate as long as the candidate is not involved.

Wilson said she hoped the limit would not simply force political parties to find loopholes to the rule by not coordinating with candidates.

The proposed ordinance also strikes a prohibition placed by Dayton disallowing county contractors from contributing to political campaigns. That measure was a major component of Dayton's ethics reforms before he left office

But Wilson said the provision is too confusing, raising questions of who is considered a county contractor.

"Does the guy who sells weed grower to the Parks Department, is he a contractor or not?" she said. "If I'm receiving $2,000 from a contractor, it's not going to be worthy of consideration, frankly. I think the notion that anybody's going to be influenced at those levels isn't true."

Council Mark Crockett said the proposal seemed to be a good middle ground, but that he plans to push to reinstate the contractor prohibition.

Crockett also said the lower limit was better than a previously suggested $2,500 limit, but that it could be even lower. A citizens ethics panel had originally suggested a $1,000 limit.

"I'm not sure why campaign limits are constitutional, but if we're going to do them they should be meaningful," Crockett said. "But I believe that Jenny's package is better than where we are at today."

Wilson, however, said she bumped the donation limit to $2,000 to keep deep-pocketed candidates from outspending lesser-funded opponents.

"Another danger with going that low is that if you tie the hands so much of candidates that are out there trying to raise money, you are more apt to see some very wealthy candidates just coming in and well-intentioned candidates don't have a vehicle for getting their message out."