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Special interests are busy donating

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Even though 2005 was not an election year for Utah legislators, many special interests were busy donating to part-time lawmakers anyway.

Overall, political action committees and businesses in 2005 gave at least $432,000 to lawmakers, their parties and legislative PACs, according to disclosure forms filed by political action committees and corporations earlier this month and reviewed by the Deseret Morning News.

But that's not all the money lawmakers received since their last elections. Because legislators don't have to report their personal campaign funds until this spring or summer, money given by individual lobbyists or business owners and their families remains unknown as legislators meet in their 45-day general session, during which hundreds of decisions vital to special interests will be made.

Legislators who took the most money from special interest groups generally say it's because they need it, either to raise early cash for their re-elections later this year or — in the case of leaders or leader wannabes — to in turn give funds to party colleagues.

"I like to assist my caucus in their re-elections," says House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. There are 56 Republicans in the 75-member House.

Curtis raised the most money from PACs in 2005 — $22,500 — and says his personal campaign account is now around a whopping $125,000. Since Curtis' year-end 2004 report shows $25,000 in cash, that means the speaker has raised at least $100,000 in 2005, with 80 percent of the donations not yet made public.

Lawmakers do not file disclosure forms themselves for more than a year after their elections, and in some cases nearly two years.

Democratic legislators have a number of so-called government reform bills this session, but requiring annual, year-end campaign reports from legislators is not one of them.

"We do need more transparency; we should have to report (legislators' own fund raising) before each legislative session," said House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake. Becker says his campaign treasurer was actually preparing a 2005 year-end report several weeks ago "before she found out that I didn't have to file one."

"With electronic filings it's easily done — now we're in session and no one knows who gave us" most of their money in 2005, Becker said.

The assumption behind legislators not filing reports in off-, non-election years has been that little money is raised, so no disclosure by lawmakers is needed.

But groups with important business before the current 2006 Legislature spread money to 77 of the 104 legislators in 2005, according to separate disclosure forms that PACs and businesses must file. Groups considered to be the most influential on Capitol Hill also were donating the most. In fact, just the top 12 donating special-interest groups gave half of all money disclosed.

Generous Realtors

The Utah Association of Realtors donated the most of any single group in 2005. It gave $51,200 last year to legislators or their parties. It raised $282,288 last year and has $732,120 in cash, making it one of the biggest financial hitters in the 2006 legislative elections.

Rep. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, got much of his $8,300 last year from Realtors. "I'm a Realtor, and they have supported me strongly over the years," said Adams.

When Adams faced re-election in 2004, the Realtors gave him $3,100; in 2005 when he had no campaign they gave him $7,500, records show.

Usually, legislators with leadership hopes raise more money than they need for their own elections, and then pass that extra money around to their colleagues hoping the cash favors may be repaid in leadership votes.

Adams lost a bid for House leadership in 2004, but still he gave $2,250 to nine GOP House incumbents.

Curtis said he gave "around $37,000 or $38,000" to fellow GOP House caucus members and leading House Republican candidates in 2004. He gave $27,000 directly to candidates and $12,000 to the state GOP, reports show.

"I probably will have more to give" to caucus members in the upcoming 2006 elections, Curtis said, "because I have more in my account" now than two years ago. Curtis has already said he plans on running for a second, two-year term as speaker when leadership elections are held just after the November final general election.

Asked if his caucus giving is connected to his leadership races over the years, Curtis just smiled and said: "I just want good people to be elected."

Besides the normal money players on Capitol Hill this session, there is a new heavy-hitter: The Conservative Caucus PAC in the House.

Headed by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the newly formed group just started fund raising in December. "We have $64,000 already," Hughes said. The largest contributor is former GOP gubernatorial candidate Fred Lampropoulos, just picked to be the Utah GOP's national committeeman. "He believes in our work, and he just gave us $50,000," Hughes said.

As more money rolls into the Conservative Caucus PAC, some of it will be spent to re-elect the approximately 30 members of the new caucus. "And, hey, we may get some more conservatives" signed up, Hughes said about his newfound wealth.

Issues of interest

Special-interest donors tend to have bills of interest pending in the Legislature. Realtors, for examples, have testified before a number of committees either in favor of or in opposition to a dozen bills.

Among legislation that Realtors seek, for example, is SB170 by Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, who is a Realtor himself. It would limit zoning powers that cities now have. The bill would prevent cities from zoning for aesthetics or to control congestion, and would ban cities from depriving landowners of "all economically viable uses" of land.

A lobbyist for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which does not make campaign contributions, this past week said that SB170 is one of the main bills the league wants to amend or kill.

Other bills of interest to Realtors range from proposals to amend grounds for disciplining real estate agents to limiting reasons that building permits can be rejected and changing property recording procedures.

The overall industry that gave the most is the finance industry. It gave at least $137,385 — including $52,760 from banking groups, $40,000 from the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, and $10,800 from credit unions, among others.

In the past, banks and credit unions have waged war over tax-exempt credit unions operating more like tax-paying banks. While such battles are not expected this year, such industries are expected to fight planned moves to impose caps on high interest rates charged by "payday" lenders.

Some banks argue it might lead to other rate caps on other things from car loans to mortgages, or make Utah perceived as unfriendly to the overall industry — which could chase away industrial banks and credit-card companies now locating here.

The finance industry gave about a fourth of all 2005 donations disclosed. Also, it spread donations to 49 of the 104 state legislators and their parties.

At $22,500, Curtis collected more than twice as much as the No. 2 recipient, Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, who received $10,500.

The lion's share of money reported by special interests went to arms of political parties, rather than legislators themselves. Of the $432,466 they reported giving to legislators or their parties, $308,621 went to parties and/or the legislators' party PACs; $123,845 went to lawmakers themselves.

The $123,000 to lawmakers is roughly about 5 percent of the combined total they normally spend on all their races over a two-year cycle.

But the party money often comes back to help legislators, either directly as contributions to individual legislator's campaign accounts, or indirectly, through party-run get-out-the-vote efforts.

Donations to legislators' PACs include: the House Republican Election Committee, $39,825 from the special interests; the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, $7,500; Senate Democrats, $6,950; and House Democrats, $5,950.

Parties also may take some money that legislators themselves may be hesitant to accept. For example, parties accepted $6,600 in donations from tobacco or beer interests (with Republicans taking $3,600 and Democrats taking $3,000). Parties can use such money to lawmakers' benefit, without lawmakers facing any embarrassment about taking money personally from such groups.

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