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Follow the money

Published July 18, 2013 5:17 pm

Scandal shows reason for limits
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

No matter what the special Utah House committee determines about the activities of embattled Attorney General John Swallow, it all stands to be a giant waste of time and money unless our political establishment draws the primary lesson that might prevent this scandal from happening again.

A handful of legislators — well, two — already get it.

On the same day that House Speaker Becky Lockhart introduced the nine members of the committee to investigate Swallow's activities, state Reps. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, and Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, presented the Government Operations Interim Committee, again, with their proposal to limit the size of campaign donations.

They continue to push this idea, shot down many times before, because they realize that it is the unrestricted flow of money, and the debt that candidates have to those who provided it, that is at the heart of the accusations against Swallow. Limits on how much can be given to candidates would be the strongest signal lawmakers could give that the things the attorney general is accused of doing are not acceptable.

The best thing lawmakers could do to head off Swallow-like scandal in the future would be to adopt limits something like those proposed by King and Powell: $10,000 for candidates seeking statewide office, $5,000 for legislative candidates, $40,000 for parties and $10,000 for PACs.

Of course, other lawmakers couldn't wait to pipe up with reasons why such limits — found in 46 states — are a bad idea.

By which they mean, of course, bad for politicians. There was no argument raised, because there is no argument to be made, that the limits would be bad for the people.

What politicians fear is that, if their rich friends can't give them unlimited amounts of money, they might be outspent by opponents, outadvertised by mysterious out-of-state PACs, outworked by (Democratic-leaning) labor unions. These lawmakers make it sound like the free flow of money equals the free flow of ideas and, from a certain, Citizens United-like, point of view, it does.

But these lawmakers are willfully ignorant of the undeniable fact that money given to public officials makes those officials beholden to their donors. Or, when given an even more sinister turn, makes donors cough up large checks out of fear of what those public officials might do to them if they don't.

Serious caps on such donations could reduce, or at least level out, the amount to which public officials are indebted to individual special interests.

If lawmakers don't see this, then they can expect more of these special investigative committees in the future.