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Limiting money in Utah politics

Published July 13, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utahns have watched as news emerges about various elected officials allegedly providing political favors to campaign contributors. The information that has come to light and that we continue to learn about the actions of our former and current attorneys general give additional reason to be concerned about the role and influence money from campaign contributors has in Utah.

These recent events have renewed discussion about the best way to limit the influence of money in politics. For example, some advocate for the appointment, rather than election, of the state attorney general.

As representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties in the Legislature, we do not believe members of any party are immune from the effects of money on the judgment of elected decision-makers. We have not seen legislators take campaign contributions in exchange for explicit promises of certain behavior to help the contributor, but we recognize this possibility is an ever-present danger.

More difficult to evaluate is the degree to which subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, the judgment and actions of elected officials are affected by a large campaign contribution. Our nature as human beings is to want to repay kindness shown and help given to us by other people.

Utah is one of only four states with no monetary limits of any kind on campaign contributions. The ability of Utahns to make unlimited campaign contributions has the effect of creating an atmosphere, a perception, that in order to gain access to elected officials or get those officials to favorably consider requests for action, a person or organization has to contribute large amounts of money to a candidate.

The absence of any campaign contribution limits also increases public cynicism toward politics and discourages voting.

In 2008, Gov. Jon Huntsman formed the Commission on Strengthening Democracy to study and make recommendations about the Utah electoral process. The next year that bipartisan commission unanimously recommended that campaign contributions from individuals, corporations, political action committees and labor unions be limited to $10,000 for state office candidates, $5,000 for legislative offices, and $5,000 for state school board positions. Limits were also recommended for contributions to political parties, political action committees and labor organizations.

We believe adoption of these limits will lower the likelihood that candidates will feel the need to solicit large contributions from individuals or entities with the means and the interests to improperly influence public policy or prosecution decisions in Utah.

In a post-Citizens United world, it may be impossible to eliminate any influence money can have on elected officials. The desire to return a favor is powerful and, at least in some cases, so is the expectation that it will be returned. We believe the best way to mitigate the inclination to feel beholden to those who provide those funds is to limit the amount of money any one person or organization can give a candidate for office.

The effect would be to increase the feeling on the part of the elected official that no one person or entity can or should exert undue influence on him or her. Contribution limits make it more likely that the interests of Utahns as a whole are advanced.

This proposal for implementing contribution limits will come before the Interim Government Operations Committee on Wednesday, July 17, at 9 a.m. in Room 445 of the Capitol.

Please contact your legislator and attend the meeting to support our proposal to put into law the campaign contribution limits from the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy.

Brian S. King is a Democrat representing District 28 in the Utah House of Representatives. An attorney, he lives in Salt Lake City. Kraig Powell, a Republican member of the Utah House representing District 24, is an attorney living in Heber City.