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Money in politics

Published November 11, 2011 11:35 pm

Gifts during legislative sessions
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah law prohibits donors from giving campaign contributions to state legislators while they are in session. Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's office has interpreted that to ban contributions during sessions even when a state legislator is a candidate for federal or local office. That was the right call, even though it may cause some sitting legislators to resign their seats while they pursue other offices.

Admittedly, the law puts some legislators in a bind. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, is one. He has declared his candidacy for Utah's seat in the new 4th Congressional District. Because the state Legislature will meet in general session from Jan. 23 to March 8 next year, that would mean he could not accept campaign donations on the eve of Republican caucuses on March 15. He has said he may resign his seat in order not to limit his fundraising ability for his federal campaign. That would leave his constituents without an elected representative in the Legislature, although a replacement would be appointed.

Still, that is not too high a price to pay for keeping campaign donors from influencing legislators when they are doing the public's business. Because Utah has no limits on the size of campaign contributions to lawmakers, or who can give them, the prohibition on giving campaign gifts during the session is just about the only barrier to putting legislators up for auction.

One might argue that states cannot pass laws that limit fundraising for federal office. Courts in other states have upheld that argument. But unless and until some candidate challenges the Utah law in federal court and wins, the prohibition on gifts during sessions of the Utah Legislature should stand. Why? Because it is easy to foresee the possibility of a donor trying to buy a sitting legislator's vote on a state issue with a contribution to his or her campaign for federal or local office.

In the meantime, the ban on contributions during the legislative session raises a larger question: Why should donors be allowed to buy influence at all? A contribution ban during the 45-day general session and any special sessions only removes the most egregious gifts. A donor still can buy influence on any other days of the year. But absent publicly funded campaigns and a total ban on private contributions — the best way to eliminate the pull of money on politics — Utah at least should enact contribution limits to campaigns for state offices.

Alas, that is something that state legislators repeatedly have refused to do.




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