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Cashed Out

SLC rep hopes legislature will at last agree to put cap on campaign contributions



In the wake of the resignation of former Utah Attorney General John Swallow in 2013, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, penned a new law that would have capped the amount of money lawmakers could rake in from corporations, political action committees and other donors.

That bill unwound the same way other similar bills had, and died on the house floor during the 2014 legislative session by a vote of 38 to 35.

Going into this year's legislative session, Swallow is facing 11 felonies and two misdemeanors stemming from his under-a-year term as attorney general. And many of the charges relate to cash and gifts he received from campaign supporters.

Just as Swallow continues to be a presence in the news, King once again has his sights set on diminishing the polluting effect money can have on politics. And he says it's not a question of if the bill will eventually pass—bringing Utah in step with the 46 other states that cap campaign contributions—but when.

"There's just too much potential for corruption and abuse there," King says of a politician's ability to open his or her bank account to any entity, for unlimited sums of money. "We saw it with the attorney general race and the Attorney General's Office. It's just too problematic, I think, to allow unlimited money."

King's House Bill 60 would rein in contributions from political action committees, labor organizations, corporations and individuals.

Under the bill, donations to state office-holders would be capped at $10,000. No more than $5,000 could be donated to a legislative, school board or judicial candidate. The cap for donations to political parties, political action committees or to labor organizations would top out at $40,000.

King says he hopes that the perception that the political process is up for sale could be quelled by chopping away at the amount of money entities can give to a politician. Among other ills facing the political process is low voter turnout, and a general feeling, King says, that regular citizens can't get the ear of their elected leaders without fistfuls of dollars.

And while any money has the potential to cast a pall over the political process, placing a cap on contributions, he says, could help eliminate the perception that politics is bought and sold in Utah.

"I think we've got to act as a legislature to respond to the perception that this is something that is sort of a pay-to-play environment," King says.

King cited a recent analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune that found that donations from special-interest and lobbying groups account for 82 percent of donations to state lawmakers, while donations from individual constituents account for only 7 percent of the pie.

Whether or not the outsize piles of money arriving in the mailboxes of legislators buy a corporation or a lobbying firm a more favorable seat at a lawmaker's table than a citizen is up for debate. For his part, King believes he and his colleagues make themselves available to constituents, not just special interests.

But, he says, if the perception is that money buys influence in Utah politics—as authorities say it did with Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff—a good place to begin snuffing it out would be to limit the size of contributions.

"The perception, I think, is the thing that we need to push back as a legislature; the perception of corruption and the perception of undue influence," King says. "Why in the world shouldn't we do that?"

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, says he won't support any limits on cash campaign contributions so long as they fail to treat donations of time and other non-monetary contributions the same way. While he avoided saying he supported the state's current system of unlimited contributions, he did say that he considers it to be "transparent."

"The problem that I've expressed in the past with Rep. King's bill is they don't treat money and time equally," Ivory says. "The system we have now deals with full disclosure and people can, based on the disclosure, make decisions based on the information that's available to them."

But King says placing restrictions on how many hours, for instance, that a person can volunteer for a candidate, could dilute citizen participation, rather than encourage it.

"I reject the idea that if we have limits on money that it's advisable to have limits on the kind of labor or volunteer work that can be performed for a candidate," he says. "We want to encourage that."