Robert Gehrke: Limiting campaign cash sounds like a great idea, but money is like water — it’ll find a way

Robert Gehrke

Here’s a number to think about: $25 million.

That’s how much politicians spent trying to get elected between 2013 and 2016 — the most recent year Utahns elected statewide candidates. Candidates for governor spent roughly $9 million on the 2016 election alone, with about half of it raised by the winner, Gov. Gary Herbert.

That money has to come from somewhere and almost invariably it comes in big chunks from — as my colleague Lee Davidson has documented — corporations and special interest groups that want to sway public policy on Capitol Hill.

And if you doubt that money buys access to Utah’s political leaders, just look back at the recorded comments Herbert made during that campaign — the “Available Jones” meeting — where he gathered lobbyists at the Alta Club and promised private meetings with any of their clients who brought a campaign contribution check with them.

If you think the 2016 total was gaudy, wait until it is obliterated by the crowded gubernatorial field this year.

The notion that money drives politics should not be a revelation to anyone by now and perhaps reached its zenith after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, striking down attempts to limit money’s influence.

Utah is in a particularly unusual position. It is one of just four states that have absolutely no limitations on campaign contributions. Any person or corporation can give as much as they want to whomever they want.

Since the 1990s, legislators have been debating whether to change that. In 2009, the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy recommended — among other changes — limiting campaign contributions.

Yet, even after a campaign contributor scandal that drove the attorney general from office, nothing has changed.

This year, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, is making another run at capping donations, proposing in HB253 to limit individual contributions to state-level candidates to $20,000, legislative donations to $10,000 and checks to political action committees and political parties to $40,000 in every two-year election cycle.

Those limits may seem extremely generous — and they are. Wisconsin and New York are pretty much the only states in the same ballpark.

But Harrison told me last week, when she introduced the measure, that she felt like setting high limits was the only way her fellow lawmakers would even consider the bill.

“One of the things I hear from my constituents is they feel like their voice is not being heard in our state and I think this is one area that, through some simple reform could actually help improve the chances the average everyday voter could be heard,” she told me last week. “These limits are very generous, so it’s one part, ‘Let’s talk about a needed issue,’ and one part, ‘Let’s talk about what is possible.’”

It ends up nibbling around the edges, to be sure. It would limit extreme cases, like the $350,000 contribution Herbert got from the Republican Governors Association, the $200,000 that A.G. Sean Reyes received from the Republican Attorneys General Association or the $850,000 that former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne gave to Jonathan Johnson when he challenged Herbert in 2016.

But even looking at Herbert’s 2016 reports — the biggest donors to the biggest statewide campaign — most of them would still not reach that high ceiling.

Merit Medical, for example, gave Herbert $110,000 for his 2016 campaign, but it was spread over multiple years, part going to his campaign, part to his leadership PAC — which then rolled most of it into the campaign.

The same is true for Huntsman International, which gave $100,000; the Utah Association of Realtors, which gave $97,500; and Nevada-based Rustler Investments, which gave him $86,250. They weren’t dodging campaign limits — which don’t exist — but it shows how easily it could be done if they did.

Harrison’s bill focuses on the two-year campaign cycle and for statewide races, which are held every four years, that means the limits can be doubled up. An individual could donate a total of $40,000 to a candidate’s campaign and, if the candidate has a PAC, send $80,000 there.

If that $120,000 isn’t enough, the individual can donate another $120,000 through his or her business. Or multiple corporations. If you don’t think that happens, consider the recent Salt Lake City mayoral race, where enthusiastic supporters made contributions from multiple entities to avoid the city’s campaign finance limits.

So is the solution to make the limits in Harrison’s bill lower? When states have tried that, they see a surge in “independent expenditures,” where groups can spend as much as they want backing a candidate. We saw that tactic utilized by billboard companies in the mayoral race as a way to get around the caps.

In politics, money is like water. It finds a way.

Another drawback to Harrison’s plan is its impact on the initiative process. In all, more than $11 million was spent on three 2018 ballot initiatives — medical marijuana, medicaid expansion and better boundaries. Most of that money came from large, out-of-state advocacy groups.

Were it not for their support, those initiatives likely wouldn’t have even made it to the ballot. Harrison’s bill would put a $5,000 cap on donations to groups supporting ballot measures.

Over the years, I’ve cooled on contribution limits as a panacea to money in politics. They are a 1970s solution to a post-Citizens United problem. Public financing would ease the pressure for candidates to kowtow to big donors, but legislators who now have the advantage of incumbency are unlikely to change a system that benefits them.

Money may find a way, but we don’t have to make it so easy. Sure, campaign caps aren’t perfect, but maybe they are the best we can do. As Harrison suggests, this could be a nice start to a longer debate.

“I think this is one step to try to rein in some of the [money],” Harrison said. “This is a conversation we should be having in Utah. … I think it’s an important step for building trust with the average voter.”

And if the Legislature won’t enact them — which they probably won’t — then maybe campaign finance reform is the next issue ripe for voters to take to the ballot.