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Utah candidates would have to disclose more about their campaign spending if state bill passes

The measure also clarifies that campaign funds can go toward meal and travel expenses if they’re related to official duties or running for office.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) State Sen. Wayne Harper, a Republican from Taylorsville, speaks during a special session of the Legislature at the Utah State Capitol, Aug. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Harper is sponsoring legislation that he says would make candidates' campaign finance disclosures more readable and accessible to the public.

Utah’s political candidates would have to sort their campaign expenses into predetermined categories under a bill meant to improve transparency around how they’re spending the unlimited sums they can receive from donors.

The legislation’s sponsor said he believes SB92 will serve a dual purpose by clarifying the rules for candidates and yielding campaign finance reports that are more robust and easier for the public to read.

“I think it’s really good cleanup,” Sen. Wayne Harper told a legislative committee Tuesday. “I think it’s going to be much more transparent, much more easy to comply with and will eliminate questions.”

The bill contains a list of specific expense categories, including advertising; campaign; loan repayments; signature gathering; supplies; contributions to other candidates or political committees; and travel expenses. If SB92 becomes law, the state’s elections office will likely offer candidates a drop-down menu that lists these available classifications and allows them to select one for each expenditure, Harper said.

“I believe that [candidates] will probably spend about the same amount of time filing the reports as they do now,” Harper, R-West Jordan, told The Tribune in a recent interview. “But I think the reports will be clear, and the public will know on a better, on a higher level ... what the campaign funds are being used for.”

The legislation — which unanimously passed the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee on Tuesday — states that money from anonymous donors can only go to charity, removing the existing option of forwarding these funds to state or local governments.

It also deletes a requirement to list the person or entity receiving a payment from a campaign and language that directs candidates to disclose the “specific purpose, item or service” that they purchased. Instead, the candidates will only have to report what “goods or services” they bought, under the bill.

State elections director Justin Lee said that change comports with the way his office is already enforcing reporting requirements, telling the committee that the current law would technically call for candidates to break out each item on a receipt as a separate expense.

“Currently, you really should be telling us staples, paper, paperclips, etc.,” Lee said. “We’ve never enforced it that way, because we don’t think that really makes a lot of sense.”

A recent Salt Lake Tribune analysis found that, since 2015, lawmakers have collectively spent millions of dollars, often with little or no transparency about where the money is going. They’re also able to pour their excess campaign funds into travel, food and gifts, and some of them do that without explaining how the purchases are connected to their elected offices or campaign.

Harper said in an interview that he saw The Tribune’s reporting and has read other stories over the years dealing with the topic of campaign finance transparency. The bill and its proposed categories are the product of conversations with the lieutenant governor’s office, candidates, political parties, special interest groups and legislative drafting attorneys, he told his colleagues in Tuesday’s committee hearing.

As part of its reporting, The Tribune sorted through five years of campaign finance reports filed by state lawmakers and sorted each expenditure into categories similar to the ones that Harper has proposed in his legislation. The paper’s review showed that around 51% of the nearly $10 million in expenditures that the Tribune examined were for their campaign expenses, like mailers, signs and advertisements — leaving millions of dollars available for other purposes.

Utah has a number of campaign finance rules that aim to prohibit “personal use” of the funds, although Lee has acknowledged there are few “bright lines” in the state’s code about what is legal and what’s not. Meal and travel expenses are generally allowed, provided they are related to a candidate’s campaign or an officeholder’s responsibilities.

Harper’s bill would expand on the current provision allowing candidates to expense the meals they buy on the campaign trail or while acting in their elected roles and any food purchased at campaign or charitable events. It also clarifies that candidates can tap into their campaign funds for travel costs, so long as the trip is related to their campaign or officeholder duties.

A representative of McCauley and Associates, a Salt Lake City accounting firm that works with many candidates, shared concerns that Harper’s proposed expense categories aren’t widely used in the world of campaign finance reporting and said these new terms could “create both confusion as well as not really provide the information that the public is looking for.”

His recommendation was to leave in place the current requirements for a detailed listing of expenses, which asks candidates to describe the purpose of the spending. If lawmakers like the idea of giving candidates specific expenditure categories, they should consider adopting ones that are widely used around the country and at the federal level, he added.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher supported the legislation, saying he believes it strikes a balance between promoting campaign finance transparency without making the process too burdensome for candidates. It often takes him 20 or 30 hours to make sure his reports are properly completed, the freshman lawmaker said.

“At times, it feels like at least a very onerous process as you’re going through and accounting for everything that is happening and without often paid staff, limited resources,” Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said. “We’re not full-time accountants.”

Nate Crippes of the Disability Law Center of Utah spoke at the hearing to say he appreciated the bill’s proposed study of voting methods that could make elections more accessible to the elderly and individuals with disabilities. The study would look at online voting options, electronic ballots, ways of making vote-by-mail more convenient and ideas for allowing people to cast ballots from home.

While Utah’s existing mail-in system does create better access, individuals who are blind or who aren’t able to use a pen still face barriers when trying to vote, Crippes said. And anything that forces a voter to leave home can create a hardship for some.

“Based on this past election,” he said, “many voters with disabilities were faced with choosing between voting privately and independently and putting themselves at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.”

The lieutenant governor, who oversees state elections, would have to present the study findings to Utah lawmakers by July 2022.

The legislation has already passed the Utah House and will head next to the full Senate for a vote.

-Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.

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