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Utah lawmakers downplay influence of special interests
Donations » Despite the stats, lawmakers downplay the influence of special interests.


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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.

At a glance

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

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"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


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