For the first time in Utah's history, state legislative leaders are on board with a proposal to impose campaign contribution caps, a compromise position reached in concert with the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy.
However, the commission's recommendation -- nudged forward by a more restrictive citizen-backed initiative that could land on next November's ballot -- might have little real effect on donations for legislators.
"I looked at those limits and I don't think they'll have much impact," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, who acknowledged that many of his own campaigns when he previously served in the House were largely homespun, with hand-painted signs and plenty of shoe leather.
"It really won't change things much," said Dave Hansen, who chairs the state Republican Party and also serves on the commission.
Hansen, who described himself as a "great believer in disclosure" rather than caps, acknowledged that he voted in favor of the proposal Thursday because he believes the issue needs thorough debate.
"Maybe it's time for some artificial limits," Hansen said.
House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he's had a long-standing interest in limiting contributions -- and duly noted the public's appetite for reform.
"It's a two-sided coin, where you gain something and lose something," Clark said. "We don't want only the well-heeled having the opportunity for public service. But we can try to minimize the influence of money on politics."
Rep. Craig Frank -- head of the House Government Operations Committee and a member of the commission -- opened a bill file earlier this fall to push the commission's position on campaign finance.
"I anticipate there being some kind of workable bill by the end of the legislative process," Frank said Friday.
After a turbulent 2008 tainted with allegations of bullying and bribery, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. -- now the U.S. ambassador to China -- launched the commission to find ways to combat cynicism and voter apathy.
Gov. Gary Herbert -- who took the office in September -- endorsed the commission's work, but also took a public stand opposing limits. Last week he raised nearly $1 million at his annual fundraising gala, fueled by donations of as much as $50,000 apiece.
"Governor Herbert's position has been consistent in that he favors full transparency of contributions over limits or caps," said spokeswoman Angie Welling, adding that it was too early to comment on legislation he has not yet seen.
"He will allow the legislative process to take place before deciding on any possible action," Welling said.
If lawmakers ultimately approve Frank's measure, Herbert can either sign, veto or allow it to become law without his signature.
Kirk Jowers, the commission's acting chairman and director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, called the unanimous recommendation historic.
"There was clearly resistance to any limits," Jowers said, noting that the backing of House and Senate leaders was needed to gain consensus. "It took a lot of convincing -- and it didn't come together until Thursday."
Jowers said he did not choose the limits lightly.
"These limits will not affect the vast majority of contributions," Jowers said, "but they will force parties and candidates to engage far more individuals and organizations -- and not just grow fat on the low-hanging fruit."
The commission-proposed caps: (per two-year cycle)
For individuals, corporations, unions and Political Action Committees
$10,000 for statewide races
$5,000 for House and Senate seats
$50,000 aggregate for parties, labor unions and PACs
Ethics Initiative caps for legislative races only: (per two-year cycle)
Ban on corporate, nonprofit, partnership and union contributions
$2,500 per individual
$5,000 per Political Action Committee
Senate President Michael Waddoups will not seek re-election in 2012, he said Friday in an interview with The Tribune. The Taylorsville Republican held his state House seat from 1987 to 1996 when he was elected to the Senate. He began serving his fourth Senate term in 2009.