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Utah lawmakers downplay influence of special interests

Published January 26, 2013 9:09 am

Donations • Despite the stats, lawmakers downplay the influence of special interests.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

To help pay for all the lawn signs, robocalls and mail ads in the past election cycle, special interests provided nearly $9 of every $10 raised by incoming Utah legislators, analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows.

So if money truly talks, reform groups worry that special interests' voices will be too loud as the Legislature's 45-day session convenes Monday. Lawmakers, however, say donations do not buy votes nor any special access that the public at large does not also have.

"With so much money going to legislators from special-interest groups, they are doing it because they think they will get some special benefit. In some cases, that may be the truth," says Kim Burningham, a former legislator who is chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government.

Legislative leaders downplay the significance of campaign contributions.

"I'm sure there's some influence, but it's minimal from my experience," says incoming Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. Lawmakers still focus on constituents' concerns, Okerlund says, and their comments are the most persuasive. "The money itself doesn't mean that much. The people you're talking to mean more."

Tribune analysis shows incoming legislators raised $4.13 million in the 2011-12 election cycle.

But individuals not connected to special interests provided only 7 percent of that, or $288,000. Money that candidates put into their own campaigns brought another 6 percent, or $240,000.

That means special interests and parties (which in turn get most of their money from special interests) provided 87 percent of the campaign contributions.

Some industries and groups stand out for their largesse.

Special interests • Among individual special-interest groups, the Utah Association of Realtors gave the most — $188,045. Behind it were Reagan Outdoor Advertising, $98,552; EnergySolutions, $80,850; SelectHealth, $62,950; and Altria (parent of the Philip Morris tobacco company), $55,000.

Others in the Top 10 were the Utah Medical Association, $51,227; the Utah Workers Compensation Fund, $50,870; Comcast, $49,403; Education First, $46,750; and the Utah Credit Union PAC, $43,573.

Some groups also spread their donations to almost all lawmakers.

For example, Reagan Outdoor Advertising donated to 86 of the 104 legislators. CenturyLink donated to 85; the Workers Compensation Fund gave to 81; IM Flash Technologies gave to 80 and its corporate co-parent, Micron, gave to 78. (The lobbyist for Micron and IM Flash is Stan Lockhart, husband of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.)

Tribune analysis shows that 25 separate special-interest groups gave donations to at least half the legislators.

Members of broad industries also combined to donate some large amounts.

For example, the health care industry donated $632,500 — about 15 percent of all money raised. Of that, about $248,000 came from health insurance companies, $157,00 came from doctors' and hospital groups; and $125,600 came from pharmacy and drug groups.

The overall finance industry donated nearly $286,000. Some key sectors of that included $86,000 from banks, $83,000 from general insurance companies; $45,000 from credit unions; and $38,000 from brokerages and investment firms.

The communications industry provided $280,000. The energy and resources industry gave $255,000. Law firms and groups chipped in $150,000. Transportation groups gave $100,000. Labor unions provided $97,000. Lobbyists forked over $87,000.

Some groups that, at first glance, would not appear to be overly popular with Utah's overwhelmingly Republican and conservative Legislature also gave significant amounts. For example, the tobacco industry donated $62,000; the beer, wine and alcohol industry provided $33,000; and gay rights groups and activists gave $15,250.

Follow the money • As a sign that money may go more for influence than need, consider that four legislators this year had no one even file to run against them — Sens. Lyle Hillyard and Mark Madsen, and Reps. Dean Sanpei and David Lifferth — so they did not need much money to campaign. But they were still given a combined total of $160,200 — and 98.4 percent of it came from special interests.

Money from special interests always creates controversy about what they may be buying with their contributions.

"It's difficult to measure exactly what we get for our money," says Cal Musselman, president of the Utah Realtors Association, the single-largest donor group. But he says it essentially helps "good, thoughtful, dedicated citizens" afford to run.

He says his group looks to support those who share its views on property rights. "We believe helping with the campaigns of those who consider private property rights a freedom that is as important to them as it is to us is paramount."

Still, Burningham, with Utahns for Ethical Government, which has long pushed for such things as limits on campaign contributions, says the current system makes it appear, at least, that big-money interests have more access and influence.

Until reforms are enacted, he says, "I think we'll never solve this problem and never protect the number of very innocent legislators who I think probably are above bribery."

He adds that the current scandal surrounding new Attorney General John Swallow — who is accused of helping businessman Jeremy Johnson, a large campaign donor to Swallow's predecessor, try to arrange a bribe — shows dangers of a system in which special interests provide such huge percentages of money. It has brought calls for reform supported this year by Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright.

Meanwhile, Okerlund says, most members don't pay a lot of attention to campaign contributions and couldn't even say who their major donors are or how much they gave.

"Most of the folks up there," he says, "likely don't give it much thought once they are elected."

ldavidson@sltrib.com

Big donors to legislators by industry

1. Health care, $632,500

2. Finance, $286,000

3. Communications, $280,000

4. Energy and resources, $255,000

5. Law firms and groups, $150,000