clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

My view: Pay-to-play system is corrupting state government

FILE — Sen. Jim Dabakis speaks at a vigil for the victims and survivors of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando outside of the Salt Lake City and County Building on Monday, June 13, 2016.
FILE — Sen. Jim Dabakis speaks at a vigil for the victims and survivors of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando outside of the Salt Lake City and County Building on Monday, June 13, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Recently, Utah mega-lobbyist Frank Pignanelli went after me in his Sunday Deseret News column. That’s OK. As a senator, I have grown skin as thick as a rhinoceros. For me the issue is not personal. What does give me grave concern is that Utah has become a pay-for-play state. Lobbyists, special interests and corporations pay and then they are allowed to play in state business.

Utah's pay-to-play system is corrupting state government and it has vastly diminished the voice of the people in the affairs of state.

Pay-to-play is not the normal way of doing business in most American states. According to the National Council of State Legislators, Utah is one of only six states with absolutely no contributions spending limitations from the state parties, PACS, corporations and unions. No limits. Zero.

First, to set the record straight. It is my experience that if elected officials and candidates tell the Utah public they refuse to take money from lobbyists, special interests and corporations, people understand. They respond with donations. My senate contributions from November 2012 to date totals $169,110. From 1,174 donors. That's an average of $132.74 per donor. Over the period I have returned thousands of dollars in special interest money. Contributions that are unsolicited, money that just arrives in the mail.

Second, I was so concerned about the free-flow of special interest cash gushing into our political system that I started the UP PAC. The purpose of UP PAC is to end all PACs. But, unlike other PACs, UP accepts no lobby or corporate money. As with my campaign, the people of Utah have generously responded to UP PAC. Since January 2015, UP has accepted $187,312 from 1,119 donors, for an average of $167.39 per person.

As to the words written about me by Mr. Pignanelli, I understand Frank being upset with me. UP was one of the first to point out that Pignanelli was the hired gun in West Jordan’s ill-fated attempt to grab $260 million Utah tax dollars for the ultimate in corporate welfare — a low job-producing, data-storage center Facebook proposal. Exposed to light (and to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams) the idea crashed into flames.

Then there was the exposé of Mr. Pignanelli’s lobbying office being homebase for the "speed dating" dance between the governor and his corporate lobbyist suitors. It was Frank who kept score and played traffic cop as the lobbyists lined up for their 20 minute ‘face time’ appointments with the governor. The corporate influencers waited patiently in Frank's office, campaign checks in hand, awaiting their chat with the state's chief executive officer.

But all of that, sadly, is just Utah politics as usual. For me, the issue is not just Pignanelli's lobbying for special interests. That's his job.

However, what should be concerning to every Utahn is the systematic takeover of the legislative process by corporate lobbyists, influence peddlers and corporate money over the last generation, and that our government has allowed it to happen.

For part-time politicians, it is much easier to hit up a few special interests for large campaign cash than to go out to constituents and raise money in small dollops. The result is that a dangerous amount of Utah political grease comes not from people but from those who have needs and desires from the state and the legislature.

A recent analysis showed that an astonishing 82 percent of the donations accepted in 2014 by incoming Utah legislators were from special interests. 82 percent!

Twenty-five legislators — about a quarter of the total — received every penny of their donations from special interests lobbyists, corporations, business leaders, advocacy groups and political action committees. Meanwhile, a paltry 7 percent of all campaign donations came from regular constituent contributions to their own senator or representative.

Pay-to-play cash may be something Utah politicians enjoy, but it is not what the people of Utah want to see. A 2016 Dan Jones & Associates poll found that 69 percent of Utahns favor some kind of campaign donation limits. Only 15 percent oppose such a measure.

Frank Pignanelli is right in his recent column about me; I did lose my seat in minority leadership in the Senate. Part of the reason might well be that I simply refuse to go to lobbyist fundraisers. I do not fret about that; I wear it as a badge of honor, and I plead with other legislators to work toward not allowing financing of campaigns with tainted cash from those with interests. Utah must make serious and meaningful changes in the campaign finance laws.

And if the politicians don't act, it is up to the voters of Utah. If they want to end pay-to-play and narrow the special interest money influence in state government, if they want elected officials that are responsive to constituents first — and donors second — then it is the voters that need to elect legislators that will make campaign finance reform a top issue.

Jim Dabakis (D) Salt Lake City has served four sessions in the legislature.