It's no surprise that Democrat Peter Cooke, who is running for Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's job, has proposed a $2,500 limit on individual campaign donations and a $5,000 limit for groups. Cooke is way behind in the money race, and limits would cut into Herbert's huge advantage.
For the same reason, it would be surprising if Herbert supported limits, much like it would be surprising if a superpower agreed to sign an arms control treaty with a Third-World enemy.
So far, Cooke has raised $150,000 compared to Herbert's $1.1 million.
Put bare-knuckle politics aside, however, and Cooke's proposal, or something like it, is what Utah needs. Otherwise, elected offices literally are for sale.
There are no limits on donations to candidates for state offices in Utah. If a billionaire or corporation or labor union or industry wants to make sure its man or woman has all the money he or she needs to run a high-priced campaign and win, it can. If a candidate wants to put a price on a meeting to hear a donor's request for a tax cut or regulatory relief, there's no limit on the ask.
Politics in Utah is a free market. That goes for governors, legislators, attorneys general, and on down the ballot.
The point of limiting donations is to restrain special-interest influence. A donor who can give no more than $2,500 to a candidate is going to have less clout than one who can give $10,000 or $20,000 or $25,000. Herbert has received individual donations above the $25,000 mark.
Limiting the size of donations also creates a incentive for candidates to raise money from more sources. The Internet has enabled that kind of broad-based fund-raising.
Setting the proper height of the ceiling is a theoretical problem. Some, including the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy, have recommended $10,000 for statewide races and $5,000 for legislative races. That's too high, though it would be an improvement on the status quo. A study of current campaigns and how they are financed might come up with different numbers.
This would not solve the problem of putting candidates of modest means at a disadvantage against wealthy opponents. Only a system of public financing of campaigns could do that, which, by the way, is not a bad idea.
Meanwhile, we expect Utah politicians will claim to be insulted by the very idea that they can be influenced by campaign donations, but they are lying to themselves. Human nature makes anyone beholden to the giver of a gift.
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