Did you know that here Utah there is literally NO limit to how much one can donate to a political campaign?
Seriously, any donation goes.
In other words, if I had a rich Auntie who wanted to put a million bucks into my campaign, she could, and I could accept it.
While that’s concerning, it gets much worse. The VAST majority of money supporting candidates and campaigns isn’t coming from individual donors, rich or not. They come from corporations and special interest groups, such as those commonly called Political Action Committees (or PACs).
And we’re not just talking a little bit of money here and there. It’s tens of thousands of dollars. Per candidate. Whether they have a challenger or not!
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is bad. It leads to massive conflicts of interest, endless ethical concerns, and of course, straight up bad government and crappy representation.
As a candidate, I believe campaign finance reform is one of the most essential and critical reforms that needs to be addressed, ASAP. Below I’ve listed a few of the reforms I would heavily push if I’m so lucky to be elected. In truth, any step in the right direction would be an improvement from the status quo.
But before I make my proposals, to understand the urgency of this issue, let’s take a closer look at just how this plays out here in the state. If you want to skip ahead and see what I propose, please scroll down.
First of all, when it comes to campaign finance, many will say “but it is impossible to run for office without spending money.” Yes, I get that it costs something to run an election – I’m seeing that first hand right now! At a bare minimum, there’s the filing fee (for my race it was $82.09). As much as I’d love to get rid of money in politics altogether, I recognize we might not be there – at least not yet. So, my proposals still give some allowance for participation in the political process by making donations to political campaigns.
All that said, there is absolutely no need for the horrendous amounts of money currently going into campaigns. And this is ESPECIALLY a problem given that the vast majority of this money is coming from special interest groups and corporations.
This current reality creates an electoral system that is fundamentally unfair.
Some are quick to point fingers at the fact that some people who run for office (and win) are already rich and spend a lot of their own money to fund their own campaigns. Yes, this is an issue in some races, but it happens less often than it might seem. Most incumbents have a steady flow of corporate and special interest donations coming in, and they have no need to put their own skin in the game, even if they are rolling in dough.
So with that, one question I want to ask is this: Why exactly do corporations, PACs, and other special interest groups pour so much cash into candidates and campaigns?
Unlike most individuals, these groups have far more financial ability to put big money behind campaigns. And it isn’t because these organizations want to help those get elected who they think will better promote their interests. If that were the case, they would ONLY be donating to close races.
But, as you might have guessed, they are not.
First of all, most of our elections are not even close to competitive. Historically, incumbents (those already holding office) almost ALWAYS get reelected when they run again (more than 95%). This is another issue that other reforms like term limits would seek to address.
It’s no secret that one party in Utah has an absolute majority in the state legislature. This is because in most of the state, only one party (usually the Republicans, though in some districts in Salt Lake it’s the Democrats) has any real chance of winning.
So, most seats either go unchallenged, or the opponent is effectively a name on the ballot with no realistic chance of winning. Just look at how the elections turn out. In 2018, there were 75 races for the Utah State House of Representatives. In 58 of those races (77%) the winner received 60% or more of the vote – solid landslide territory. That leaves only 17 seats that even have the remote potential of being competitive.
Yet nearly all of these candidates, guaranteed wins though they were, still got substantial funding from corporations and PACs. Some are so heavily financed by special interest groups that it isn’t even funny.
Let’s look at a few examples from this year. To illustrate this point, let’s only look at races which have been completely and utterly uncontested.
This means that the incumbent running had NO competition in their party convention, NO party primary, and NO challenger from any other party on the general ballot. In other words, other than paying the filing fee to get on the ballot, these candidates could literally do nothing at all and still be guaranteed to get elected.
Out of the 75 elections for the Utah House of Representatives this year there are ten that meet this criteria.
So, you would think there is no rational reason for spending money on these campaigns, right? Well, for some reason, these individuals are still receiving campaign funds.
Consider Representative Jefferson Moss, who covers areas of northwest Utah county. So far in this election cycle, this completely uncontested candidate has reported more than $16,800. Among his donors, only ONE is an individual.
How about another example? Representative Phil Lyman, whose district spans seven counties in southern Utah, has already received almost $12,000. He has had only two individual donations, and more than $11,000 from corporations! And yet he has faced no competition at all in this election cycle.
Perhaps the most egregious example comes from Representative Francis Gibson, whose district covers much of southeast Utah county. While he has faced no competition, he has received nearly $42,000 in campaign donations thus far! And again, only two of his donations came from individuals. The rest are PAC, special interest, and corporate money.
Now, this isn’t meant to criticize these individuals in their work as representatives, but I use them as stark examples of why this is wrong.
Corporations and PACs are spending money on these and many other campaigns that are already foregone conclusions. Why? The only explanation is that these PACs and companies are trying to BUY INFLUENCE in the legislative process. They want laws that will serve their financial or other interests. Plain and simple.
And so, they bankroll the campaigns of incumbents who face no real competition.
Now, many of these elected officials might cry foul at this point. “Just because they’re giving me money,” they claim, “it doesn’t mean that I have to vote the way they want me to!”
No, it doesn’t. But that’s entirely beside the point. Once they’ve given money to your campaign, a financial relationship exists, like it or not. And to make decisions on applicable legislation when such a financial relationship exists is, by definition, a conflict of interest.
It doesn’t matter how honest you are, this is Ethics 101. You could be Mother Teresa, and it would still be a conflict of interest and a breach of good ethical behavior.
Yet it happens ALL THE TIME! And if I’m elected, I’m going to be fighting with all my power to see if I can do something about it.
I would love to see Utah take some big leaps forward in becoming more ethical in how our political campaigns are funded. Now that we’ve identified the problems, what are some of the potential solutions?
Well, there are many that I would propose, but here are six that I think would make a big difference.
Limiting Donation Amounts
First, and perhaps easiest, is capping the amount that anyone can donate to a single campaign. Federal races do have limits (unlike Utah state races). Federal races have an individual cap of $2,700 that can be donated per cycle (meaning, that it could be doubled in the case where the candidate faces both a primary and general election contest).
Since Utah is one of 50 states, it makes sense to divide this amount by 50 – which would be $54.
Now, I get that this is a pretty small amount for some, so I’m even willing to round it up to the nearest $100, which is, of course, exactly $100. Let’s try to make this the maximum that an individual can contribute to a campaign.
Limiting Corporate and PAC Donations
But as I’ve said, individual donations aren’t the biggest problem. The second thing we need to do is limiting the source of donations.
While I don’t like the idea of corporations putting money into campaigns in general, I do recognize that they are also influenced by legislation. Taking them completely out of elections might be a nice dream for some, but hard to justify or implement.
However, they still shouldn’t have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to funding campaigns. In fact, they shouldn’t have an advantage at all. An easy solution is to cap the amount they can donate at the same amount as any individual.
So, let’s also cap all corporate and PAC campaign donations at $100. This alone would vastly reduce the amount of special interest money currently going to campaigns.
Campaign Spending Limits
Another reform that I would really like to see is limiting the amount of money that any state candidate can spend on their campaign. This helps put all electoral contests on a relatively more even playing field, and precludes wealthy individuals from simply coming in and vastly outspending their opponents.
The easiest way to determine these caps would be to base it on the number of registered voters per district. A common date, say January 1st of the election year, could be used as the measuring stick.
For those who are wondering, it would likely mean that most State House races would be capped at around $20,000, State Senate races at around $50,000, and statewide races at around $2 million. So, still plenty to run a full, robust campaign at any level.
Regulating the Work of Special Interest Groups
What about PACs and other special interest groups who decide to skirt the campaigns and simply spend money on their own “campaigns?” These groups are notorious for mobilizing significant amounts of money from throughout the country, then coming into Utah and spending like crazy in order to influence our campaigns.
Under current federal law, those who spend money on political issues outside of official campaigns aren’t subject to the same campaign finance laws. Effectively, they are able to raise and spend unlimited funds!
These organizations become proxy organizations for campaigns, and the amount of money that goes into them is not even reported. Just about anything goes.
So, I would look at passing laws in Utah which limit the ability for any organization to spend money publicly on any activity related to anything that is on our ballot.
In other words, anybody wishing to campaign in Utah for (or against) any candidate, party, or ballot item MUST be filed as an official political entity with the state of Utah. Then, these groups would be subjected to these same campaign finance and reporting laws and limits as candidates and campaigns.
This would include the above proposed donation limits.
Regulating Organizations Employing Lobbyists
What about lobbyists? Lobbyists are generally hired by corporations and special interest groups to work closely with candidates and elected officials to push for specific legislation and, in some cases, even take part in the drafting of legislation.
While this is a tricky one, I can see why organizations would like to seek to have input in the political process. If they want to hire and send lobbyists to the State Capitol, I don’t think this should be denied. HOWEVER, I do believe that if an organization chooses to use registered lobbyists, they should NOT be able to finance political campaigns, parties, or organizations in any way. They should pick one or the other.
Lobbying Ban for Elected Officials
Finally, while we are talking about the ethics of lobbyists, did you know that a huge number of former elected officials, upon retirement, take up jobs as lobbyists? Not only do they get paid more, they have an inside track to the process of lawmaking (which they learned while on the taxpayer’s dime) and are able to leverage that on behalf of their new employer.
This practice should end. Those who have served as legislators at any point in the past should be banned from working as registered lobbyists going forward. They should not benefit financially from public service.
There are other areas that could be discussed, but I feel that if these six campaign finance reforms took place, we would become far more ethical in the way that our laws are made and in the ways our elections are conducted.
And with that, we’d get far better representation, and far better government.
Again, these reforms I propose are:
- Capping individual donations at $100 per cycle for all Utah state, county, and municipal races.
- Capping corporate and PAC donations at the same level – $100
- Capping the amount that candidates can spend on their elections based on the number of registered voters within their district.
- Requiring registration of any organization spending money in Utah related to things that will be on the ballot (candidates, parties, initiatives, etc.) as a political organization in the state, and subjected to the same finance limits and reporting requirements.
- Organizations which employ lobbyists in Utah are NOT allowed to donate to political campaigns, parties, or organizations.
- Those who have served as legislators have a lifetime ban on working as registered lobbyists in the state.
If elected, I won’t only push for this type of legislation (yes, I know I would get major push back – bring it on!), but I’ll use my position as a rallying point for transparency on the matter. It will be made public which organizations and which candidates are spending money on the political process.
If we can’t get enough legislators on board in passing this type of needed reform, then we’ll take it to the next level – pushing for a statewide initiative on campaign finance and ethics reform for the state.
Let me know your feelings on campaign finance reform. What changes would you like to see?