By 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Salt Lake City will find out who its mayor is going to be for the next four years, and statistical probability holds that Jackie Biskupski, who, on election night two weeks ago, was beating Mayor Ralph Becker by nearly 5 percentage points, will hold on to win.
That one of these two candidates will be named the winner, though, is just the warm-up for a discussion scheduled for the 7 p.m. council meeting on tweaking the city’s campaign finance rules. And there’s a good chance that some of the discussion will center on the $1.4 million that the two mayoral candidates dropped on their campaigns.
While successful fundraising by the candidates (Becker spent $863,000 and Biskupski dropped $536,000) might have been enough alone to spark action from the council, other events undoubtedly contributed. Mainly, this mayoral race marked the first time in Utah politics that a “super PAC” was formed by a corporation—in this case Reagan Outdoor Advertising—to funnel money into campaigns without a candidate’s participation or consent.
Reagan, long an opponent of Becker’s public views that the littering of billboards across the Salt Lake Valley are little more than visual pollution, put up dozens of billboards for all of the candidates challenging Becker. In at least two of these instances, the company’s “super PAC” donated $7,500—the city’s maximum amount from single donors in the mayor’s race—then continued to put up additional billboards without the consent of candidates, essentially violating the spirit of the city’s campaign contribution limits by wiggling through a massive loop hole afforded in a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows for unlimited campaign contributions from corporations and unions.
The presence of “super PACs” in local politics and the fact that Becker spent $54.48 and Biskupski dropped $31 on each vote they earned drew the ire of residents and council members alike.
A staff report prepared for the Tuesday meeting notes a few possibilities that the council could pursue in grappling with the growing influence of money and corporate donors in local politics. They include restricting the way “super PACs” can spend money, placing restrictions or even outright bans on contributions from for profit and non-profit corporations, and limiting the amount each contributor can donate.
On the donation side, the staff report cites a pair of numbers—suggested by the local branch of the group Move to Amend—which has lobbied nationwide for campaign finance reforms that could chop the maximum amount contributed in Salt Lake City council races to $500 per donor, and to $1,000 per donor in mayor’s races.
The staff report includes data from the 2003 through 2013 city council races, and the three mayor’s races during this time, 2003, 2007 and 2011. In mayor’s races, the average amount spent per vote by winning candidates was $30.27.
During these three election cycles, the average donation size required to win an election was $460. If corporate contributions are excluded, the average donation required to fund a successful campaign drops to $230 per donor.
Compared to the dollars being tossed at the mayor’s seat, city council races are a relative bargain. The average amount spent across all seven of the city’s council districts during the past six elections per vote, was $9.58.
The amount required to win a simple majority of votes in council races was $16,287, while the mayor’s race—not including the $1.4 million just spent—is $532,194.
The Salt Lake City Council meeting starts at 7 p.m. at City and County Building, 451 S. State Street.