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It’s time for campaign finance reform in Utah

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Karina Brown, running mate of Utah Democratic candidate for governor Chris Peterson, speaks during a press conference calling for revisions to Utah’s COVID-19 response in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah is one of only five states — alongside Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon and Virginia — that has no state limit on campaign contributions from individual, state party, corporate, union and political action committee donors as reported by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In contrast, voters in Massachusetts, Missouri, Arizona and North Dakota have, in 2018 alone, resoundingly passed amendments, propositions and measures aimed at setting ceilings on donations. The people of Utah and their legislators could, and should, show the same courage.

Citizens United and other U.S Supreme Court rulings impacted campaign donations and political communications sponsored by groups at the federal level. The Citizens United decision opened the door to increased spending on political communications by large donors, which has had a negative effect on national politics.

Utah still has the need for meaningful state level campaign reform, as our state currently sets no boundaries at all on donations for state campaigns.

To reiterate, many states have implemented meaningful campaign finance reform, and Utah can follow suit. We must legislate, sooner rather than later, firm limits to campaign contributions. We must restore voter confidence by curtailing the undue influence that unbridled campaign contributions have on politics in Utah.

Recently, three ballot initiatives have passed that represented three major updates demanded by the people of Utah. However, once the initiatives were passed by the majority of Utah voters, elected officials altered some of the important provisions contained in each ballot initiative. 

The connection between elected officials and voters should be restored. We can, and must, prevent monied interests from exercising misplaced pressure. Capping campaign contribution amounts will serve this goal admirably. Our unified voice and collective will are neither represented nor served by the large contributions of special interests. 

In Utah, the lieutenant governor maintains oversight over campaign finances.  All contributions are required to be formally disclosed to the lieutenant governor’s office. Although it is unclear to what extent significant single donations influence public policy, legislation and business, there are examples to show that even midsize donations can result in legislation that protects specific categories of donors. For example, there are hundreds of payday loan companies in Utah, an industry that donates widely to legislative and state office candidates. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the Utah annual payday loan interest rate is 652%. There is currently no cap on payday loan interest rates in Utah — a completely unacceptable outcome of money influencing our politics. 

Civic despair occurs when individuals, regardless of their gender, occupation, race or educational level, feel a sense of hopelessness that leads them to believe that their voices and votes do not matter. They subsequently become disenfranchised and begin to believe that they are not empowered to make a difference in their communities. The connection between elected officials and voters can be restored, and trust in elected officials can be rebuilt, and this starts with limiting campaign donation amounts allowed to state candidates. The time is now for campaign finance reform in Utah.

Karina Brown is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Utah with Chris Peterson for governor. Brown is president of the Friends of the Cache County Children’s Justice Center Board. She is a Nibley planning commissioner, board member for the Cache Valley Chamber of Commerce and governing board member for Logan Regional Hospital. She served as one of five citizen sponsors of Proposition 3 to expand Medicaid.