Democrat Peter Corroon challenged Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday to join hands with him and mutually return contributions of $10,000 or more that they have received from any donor.
The Salt Lake County mayor also called on his Republican rival to ban donations from companies that do business with the state.
Accepting the challenge would cost Herbert at least 60 percent more than Corroon. The governor would need to return at least $520,000 from donors who gave more than $10,000 each, compared with about $309,000 for his opponent, according to a Salt Lake Tribune review of the candidates' financial disclosures.
Not surprisingly, Herbert did not accept the challenge, but he didn't specifically decline it, either.
Herbert's campaign manager, Joe Demma, simply issued a statement saying the governor "has proven that he is committed to an open and transparent election process" by such things as disclosing his donations online more rapidly than required by law.
He added, "How he [Herbert] governs the state of Utah is not affected by who does or does not support our election campaign."
Stories have swirled for the past week about whether Provo River Contractors won a $1.1 billion contract for the rebuild of Interstate 15 in Utah County because it gave Herbert's campaign $87,500 in donations and held meetings with the governor before the bid was decided.
The second-place bidder, Flatiron/Skanska/Zachry, alleged improprieties in "alterations" made in the bidding process. The Utah Department of Transportation paid it $13 million to avoid a lawsuit and delays. UDOT Executive Director John Njord said that payout was his decision, and it was made without any political pressure from Herbert.
Amid that, Corroon had a letter hand-delivered to Herbert on Wednesday challenging him to "join me in imposing a voluntary limit on campaign contributions of $10,000 per contributor, for this entire election cycle, and a ban on contributions from companies who do business or receive incentives from the state."
At a news conference, Corroon said, "The public is tired of big money in politics."
He added that because of stories looking at the $13 million payout, "we have just seen how much big money can affect a governor's race. We have seen the distractions it has caused, not only to state government, but to the election. Now it is time for Gary and I to demonstrate important leadership."
Corroon said that, as a legislator, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, Herbert's running mate, once proposed limiting donations to $10,000 and that ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (for whom Herbert was lieutenant governor) also spoke in favor of such limits. If elected as governor, Corroon said he would push to create such a cap. Donations to state-level candidates currently have no limits.
Corroon said he would not impose such ceilings on himself now unless Herbert also agrees to do it.
"I want to play by the same rules," Corroon said, "and will only do it if Gary will do it."
But Corroon said, if Herbert accepts the challenge, he would take the extra step of returning donations to his campaign that came from firms that do business with Salt Lake County. His campaign estimated that may be another $20,000.
Demma said in his statement that if Corroon has reservations about how large donations may affect "his ability to govern Salt Lake County, his commitment to returning them should not be contingent upon the governor" accepting his challenge.
Meanwhile, Corroon said he heard from other contractors who say bidding is unfair in the Herbert administration, showing the need for reform.
"They feel," Corroon said, "the system is such that the people who the state wants to get the contract gets the contract, and that is the way system is set up." The Democrat declined to name those contractors but said he may ask if they are willing to come forward themselves.
Corroon said capping donations would help political challengers because most large contributions from companies and political action committees now go to incumbents. He said he also would support public financing of campaigns similar to what is done in Arizona.
Despite that system tapping public funding for candidates, Corroon said it may actually save taxpayers money by avoiding the appearance of "pay to play" corruption and lawsuits that may come from it.
R About 1,400 of Gary Herbert's well-heeled supporters gathered at the governor's annual gala Saturday, raising an estimated $700,000 for his campaign. Herbert's camp originally asked sponsors to give $50,000 to be a top-tier sponsor but scaled it back to $25,000. Eight kicked in at that level; 21 more donated $10,000 apiece.