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Special interests are Utah politicians' cash cows

Published November 22, 2010 4:48 pm

Donations • 5% of campaign cash comes from constituents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, says he has never asked for a campaign contribution during his eight years in office. He hasn't had to, thanks to generous special interest groups.

"It just comes on its own," he says about the donations. Even though he ran unopposed this year and had few campaign expenses, corporations and political action committees still gave him $16,556. So Morley says he never needed to ask constituents for money.

Morley isn't alone.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign-disclosure forms shows that 33 of the 100 incoming legislators who reported raising money this year (four did not report any donations) did not collect any money from their local constituents.

Instead, it all came from corporations, PACs, lobbyists, other politicians, parties, people outside their districts or their own pockets.

An additional 17 lawmakers received less than 1 percent of their money from constituents, essentially a pittance. The most that any lawmaker received from constituents was 22 percent, meaning that 78 percent of contributions still came from outside interests.

Buying access? • Overall, a mere $1 of every $20 raised by legislators this year came from their district constituents.

"That's appalling," says Kim Burningham, chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government. He is a former legislator who is leading a petition drive to put an ethics referendum on the 2012 ballot. His proposed measure would ban contributions from corporations, prohibit politicians from passing on money they receive to other candidates, and limit PAC and other donations to $2,500 apiece.

"Good campaign procedure should be dependent on the financial resources of my constituents — my neighbors and friends. I am elected to represent their interests. But if I receive all my money from a PAC or corporation, I'm indebted to someone else. That's highly wrong," he said.

Burningham said the public should question why special interests give so much, even when not asked.

"It demonstrates to me that these groups are aware they can gain influence," he said. "It buys access, and maybe more. There's a fine line between listening, and listening with a preferential attitude. That's what I fear if someone gives you $10,000."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City — one of the 33 lawmakers who received no money from local constituents —said special interests are not buying votes with their donations.

"But it is true that they buy access," Jenkins said. "You listen to people who donate to you. But is that bad?" Jenkins argues that it isn't.

"For example, I'm a hunter —but I don't have time to go to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress." So Jenkins says he joined some gun and hunting groups. "I pay those guys to lobby for me. If all hunters did that, we'd have a loud clear voice," and members of Congress would understand their views, which is different than buying votes.

Ethics concerns • He adds that the Legislature had passed several ethics laws in recent years that he said bring transparency to who is donating. "People can get on a website and with a few clicks of a mouse see what we're doing — and if they don't like it, they can vote us out," he said.

Meanwhile, Burningham would like to see far more donations, but probably a bit larger, akin to the 24 cents from "unknown children" reported by Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville. (It was the smallest single donation reported by any candidate).

Burningham also would like to see fewer donations like the $10,000 — the largest single donation to a lawmaker by any PAC — given to Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, by the Consumer Lending Alliance of the payday loan industry.

Mayne, in recent years, passed a bill instituting reforms for the payday loan industry that did not go nearly as far as critics sought. The industry lobbied hard for Mayne's bill over tougher legislation proposed by others.

Who passed up the cash? • The Tribune analysis shows that a bit less than $140,000 of the $2.6 million that just-elected legislators reported raising before the election this year came from their constituents. (A chart at sltrib.com lists totals for each legislator.)

Overall, corporations are the biggest patrons of lawmakers, providing 37 percent of total contributions. PACs were the second most generous, at 23 percent. Among other sources of campaign funds, people outside of a legislator's district gave 11 percent; parties, 8 percent; other politicians, 6 percent; candidates giving to their own campaigns, 4 percent; labor unions, 4 percent; and lobbyists, at least 2 percent.

Among the 33 lawmakers who received nothing from constituents are several leaders. On the Senate side, besides Jenkins, are Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville; Senate Assistant Majority Whip Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City; Senate Minority Whip Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights; and, in the House, Assistant Majority Whip Ronda Menlove, R-Garland.

Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, had one of the highest percentages of donations that came from constituents: 19 percent of the $1,850 that he kept. But he says he returned about $10,000 in unsolicited money from special interests.

"I know that's unusual," he said. "But I really didn't have much of a race, so I didn't want to take that money. I did not cash the checks, and sent them back and suggested that they give it to people who had tight races."

Handy, who was appointed to the Senate this year and waged his first race, adds, "I was surprised how much money came. I didn't ask for it."

ldavidson@sltrib.com

Show me the money

For a breakdown of contribution sources, legislator by legislator, view this online chart • http://bit.ly/aXyGw1