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Horror stories about alleged campaign corruption by former Attorney General John Swallow ironically helped block passage Tuesday of a bill to limit campaign donations in Utah, one of just four states without such caps.
Lawmakers worried that limits might hamper honest politicians in raising enough money to combat groups that sometimes funnel large amounts of untraceable "dark money" into an election, as is alleged to have occurred with the Swallow campaign in cahoots with payday lenders.
As a result, the House Government Operations Committee voted unanimously to hold HB60 by House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. He said he will try to work out some concerns, and bring back the bill later.
But he said that may be tough. "I don't think there is a way of limiting dark money," he said. "I want to see if there is something we can do to address dark money … in the form of greater disclosure and transparency."
King's bill proposes to limit donations by individuals to $10,000 every two years for statewide races such as governor, and $5,000 in legislative races. It would limit donations to parties, political action committees or labor unions to $40,000.
A Dan Jones & Associates poll for UtahPolicy.com released Tuesday said 69 percent of Utahns favor such limits. King noted that the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy in 2009 called for donation limits, but several bills seeking to create them died through the years.
King said the limits would give voters more faith that elctions are not being bought by the wealthy, and that small donations and volunteer efforts by neighbors fuel campaigns. He said it may help increase Utah's low voter turnout.
"Utahns, unfortunately, have the perception that politicians are corrupt coming off the attorney general's scandal," testified Maryann Martindale, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah. She urged passage of the bill, telling lawmakers it would "send a message that you are concerned with that perception."
But Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said it could leave honest politicians defenseless against something that happened to him in 2012. Swallow is accused of funneling $100,000 quietly from payday lenders in hard-to-trace ways to PACs that waged a nasty mail campaign that helped defeat Daw in that election. He won his seat back last year.
Daw likened fighting such money to an arms race, and said the bill would "unilaterally disarm" honest politicians against such tactics. He said limits could lead to more use of dark money.
"I think we need to solve the whole problem," Daw said. "If we address one side and not the other, I believe the cure would be what kills the patient."
Several other lawmakers also said they believed the bill would not have stopped abuses that Swallow is alleged to have committed. But King said among allegations is that Swallow did favors for big donors, and the limits proposed could have helped stop that.
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, said he worries other loopholes exist. He said it would be easy for individuals to circumvent limits by donating larger allowed amounts to PACs or political parties, and then have those groups turn around and give the money to a desired candidate.
King said he will look for improvements, and possibly bring back the bill later in the session. A similar bill by King died by three votes in the House last year.