Utah’s legislators didn’t need to raise much campaign money in 2019, since it was not an election year for them. They still amassed plenty — and special interest groups supplied 93.5% of it, about $14 of every $15.
Academics say that is unusual because in most states, studies say lawmakers raise about half of their money from individual voters and half from special interests.
Utah’s big disparity raises questions about what those special interests — including realtors, banks, drug companies, law firms, the oil industry, tobacco companies, outdoor advertisers and more — receive for their money.
Nobody says they directly buy votes. But some academics and donors say it purchases better access to the political process. Meanwhile, legislative leaders and other donors say it buys nothing and merely shows how some donors support politicians who tend to vote in ways they like.
The question was pertinent in 2019 as many special interests battled over tax reform that passed in a special legislative session, says Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center. It advocates for the poor, and as a nonprofit it cannot by law donate to campaigns. Tibbitts says it could not afford to do that even if it were legal.
Tibbitts says he and fellow advocates for the poor are at a disadvantage against big donors — and Crossroads was on the losing side, for example, in a battle over raising the sales tax on food, which it says hurts the poor.
He notes that initially in tax reform discussions, “There was talk about having transfer fees on real estate transactions. There was talk about having them on legal services,” he says.
Neither happened. Maybe not coincidentally, the Utah Association of Realtors was the single largest donor to lawmakers last year (as it usually is). Also, lawyers and law firms ranked No. 7 among donors by industry.
“I wouldn’t say that people’s votes were bought,” Tibbitts says. “But the thing is, when somebody puts money into your campaign fund, you know that they could also put money into an opponent's campaign fund. That’s a pretty persuasive argument.”
“People worry that politicians are more beholden to big donors than to their constituents,” says Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, which favors campaign finance reform. “So to have 93% of money come from special interests is super concerning.”
As it has in past years, The Salt Lake Tribune analyzed campaign finance disclosures filed by legislators earlier this month. During 2019, a nonelection year, the 104 lawmakers raised a combined $1.28 million — and at least $1.2 million came from special interests and their leaders, or 93.5%.
In comparison, during the 2018 election year, lawmakers raised three times as much — $3.54 million — and special interests provided 82.4% of that.
In 2019, individual voters living in a lawmaker’s own district provided a scant 0.7% of members’ total donations. In the 2018 election year, they provided 6%.
Michael Barber, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, says those numbers are unusual compared to other states.
“Most state legislative candidates actually raise about half of their money from individual contributors and the other half from interest groups,” he says. “So, if that number is right, that is really lopsided.” He also notes that Utah is among few states that have no limits on donations, making it easier for special interest to give in large amounts.
The Tribune analysis also shows the top donors and recipients (seen in the attached chart).
Besides those top donors, some others are also interesting.
Altria, a tobacco company, is the No. 6 individual donor, giving $31,000 last year. Lobbyists and their firms gave $43,585, ranking No. 10 by industry. And legislators gave themselves a total of $51,207.
Reasons for giving
One of the two top donors to lawmakers acknowledges that it helps create access, while the other says it buys nothing and simply helps support politicians whose records they like.
“Reagan Outdoor Advertising makes donations to political candidates in hopes that it provides Reagan an opportunity to discuss regulatory issues with elected officials who create the regulations,” company president Dewey Reagan wrote in an email.
“Is Reagan hoping for ‘extra access?’” he wrote. “No, rather Reagan is hoping for adequate access,” adding that his industry is best served when those making policy decisions are well informed.
Of note, cities in the past have criticized Reagan Outdoor Advertising for trying to persuade legislators, amid its consistently big donations, to override billboard restrictions imposed by cities.
Meanwhile, David Robison, president of the Utah Association of Realtors, says it simply donates to people whom the group feels will generally support its industry.
“Our main concern is that the individual promotes homeownership, affordable housing and the economy,” Robison says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats. It doesn’t matter if they’re Republicans.”
The numbers, though, indicate a definite partisan leaning last year. Of the 21 lawmakers receiving Utah Association of Realtors donations, 20 were Republican.
Senate President Stuart Adams and Senate Democratic leader Karen Mayne — both recipients of the group’s contributions — say donations don’t buy votes or special access.
“I try to talk to everyone,” regardless whether they are a big donor, Adams, a home developer, says. “It’s hard. ... I do think a lot of people believe they are giving to a cause” and donate to those who generally support the issues they also care about.
Mayne says that donating to her “doesn’t guarantee a vote, and people know that. I vote from the heart.” She believes people give to her “because they like what I stand for, and because they want to support our [Democratic] caucus so that we have two vibrant parties.”
Barber, the BYU political scientist, says research shows that individual voters and special interests give for different reasons — and influence politics quite differently.
“The main reason why individuals give money is they’re acting as kind of partisan cheerleaders,” he says. “They’re giving to candidates that they like personally or that they agree with ideologically. They’re more likely to give to their home district representative.”
Alternately, he says special interests are “giving as a way to gain access to the legislative process.”
While people may think of that as directly buying votes, Barber says there’s little evidence of that.
“What they’re doing is buying access to the process long before the vote is taking place. They’re buying a conversation with the legislator when the bill is in its earliest form and they want to have a say in what it is going to look like,” and can even push for consideration of a topic that otherwise may not rise to the top of the agenda, he says.
So he says interest groups “are really looking to create long-lasting relationships with these legislators. They give early. They give often.” And most tend to seek relationships with whomever is in power — and usually consider donating to challengers as too risky.
The result of special interests giving more than regular voters may be a bit surprising, according to Barber’s research.
“The more a candidate is funded by individual contributors, the more polarized and ideologically rigid they tend to be,” he says. “The more a candidate is funded by interest groups, the more moderate and willing to compromise a legislator tends to be.”
He explains why.
“Interest groups want legislation. They want things passed and they want people who are willing to get in and make compromises to get something through,” Barber says. “Whereas individuals often don’t care about that. They just want someone who’s going to be a kind of ideological purist.”
Legislators spent all that money from special interests last year in some unusual ways, such as giving away much of it. Also, a lot of it went to travel (sometimes to exotic locations). And some legislators managed to pay themselves back for loans made to their campaigns.
Legislators gave away at least $238,201 in donations last year, nearly $1 of every $5 they raised.
Most of those donations went to other politicians’ campaigns — from presidential candidates to people running for city councils. Legislative leaders who receive the most in donations especially spread it to lawmakers in their parties — which also helps them build favor and support by colleagues.
Adams, who received the most in donations of anyone, says leaders attract more money because donors “know that we’re trying to take care of our members, and we’ve been trying to fundraise and make sure that people have significant funds to run with.”
Many of the donations that members made also help build local favor. Much of it goes to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, local school groups, local celebrations and a variety of ideological groups.
Legislators also spent at least $207,942 on travel last year, about $1 of every $6 raised.
Much of that was to conferences around the country, but it also funded some trade and other trips to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico and Europe.
A hefty amount also went to food and dining: at least $63,554. Another combined $13,700 went to gifts — from wedding gifts to gifts for interns, gifts for other lawmakers and gifts for visiting constituents.
Some money went to pay back lawmakers for earlier loans they made to their campaigns, including: Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, $10,000; Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, $3,000; Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, $548; Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, $383; and Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, $250.
Other spending was simply interesting because it was unusual.
Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, listed spending $310 for ammunition for a town hall meeting. In an interview, Maloy said that he holds some town halls at shooting ranges to discuss Second Amendment rights with shooters. Maloy also spent $161 on dry cleaning for his suits.
Four lawmakers spent a combined $600 to pay fines to the lieutenant governor’s office for problems with their disclosure filings, including Reps. Owens, R-Fountain Green, and Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, and Sens. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, and Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt.
Two legislators bought out movie showings for fundraisers. Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, spent $4,948 at a Megaplex and Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, spent $2,699 at a Cinemark.
Sen. Jake Anderegg spent $43 over four days to ride scooters around Nashville while there for a convention.
Finally, Hemmert spent $26 at Harmons for what he wrote was “sales tax on food research — bought a sampling of items to see which were charged at the higher rate and the lower rate.”