This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah voters elected the 104 members of the 2017 Legislature, but special-interest groups supplied 92 percent of the campaign money they raised last year.
A mere 3 percent of the total donated came from regular people who live in the district of the member benefiting, according to analysis of campaign financial disclosures by The Salt Lake Tribune.
"If that isn't an indictment of our current system, I don't know what is," says Kim Burningham, a former member of the Legislature and past chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government. "It says clearly that there's a lot of allegiance owed to special interests, and we need to change that."
As the Legislature convenes Monday, such statistics again raise questions of what donors receive for their money. Critics such as Burningham say it buys access and influence, but members say they listen to all sides of issues and are not unduly swayed by special-interest money.
Ethics • Burningham does not argue that big donations buy votes. Instead, he says they secure for the contributor "the right to be heard, and their arguments are listened to," he says. "When those arguments are listened to, there's a better chance they will be followed especially if the other side is not heard."
He would like to see donation limits to cut down on special-interest influence. No such caps now exist in Utah, although they are common elsewhere.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has a different take. He finds that most lawmakers try hard to listen to all sides of arguments, and says money has less influence than critics believe.
"If you ask me who my top donors are, I couldn't tell you," Hughes said. "One person's special-interest group is the other person's good grassroots voice."
Hughes said he hears that groups often choose to donate to those lawmakers who they find "are open to conversation and new information to make decisions."
The House speaker believes Utah legislators take such a high percentage of funds from special interests because they dislike asking for donations, and special interests tend to kick in without being asked.
"Many times those [special interest] contributions come unsolicited," he said. "Calling your friends and family and neighbors and asking for money is awkward. ... I hate asking for money. It's uncomfortable."
The Utah Association of Realtors was the state's largest donor in 2016, giving $131,149 to 66 lawmakers. Its president, DeAnna Dipo, said the reason it donates is to help "those who support homebuyers and strengthen the economy" and "who are honest and ethical."
Her group uses a two-prong test to decide where to put its money. Candidates must have records and positions that support the real estate industry, and priority is given to those with greater funding need for tighter races. "We interview them to talk about their positions."
Not only have realtors been successful in helping to elect supporters, they have helped to elect many realtors to office. At least five lawmakers are current or former realtors or real estate brokers, including Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. Gov. Gary Herbert is also a former realtor.
At least another four are homebuilders or developers, including Hughes and House Majority Leader Brad Wilson.
Givers and takers • The 104 members of the Legislature raised a combined $3.46 million from sources beyond their own wallets last year.
Of that, $3.18 million came from out-of-state or special interests that often have business before the Legislature.
In short, the average legislator raised $33,325 last year, and $30,588 of it came from out-of-state or special interests.
Lawmakers who raised the most were either in seriously contested races and needed money the most or were legislative leaders, who have the most influence on the legislative agenda.
The big campaign recipients included Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who had a significant primary race, $185,740; freshman Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, who also had a competitive primary race, $120,859; Senate President Niederhauser, $116,514; House Speaker Hughes, $102,651; freshman Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, $98,852, who was in a hard-fought primary; former House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, $97,614, who faced a well-known challenger; Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, $84,728; and new House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, $84,728.
The largest individual donors besides the Utah Association of Realtors were: Education First, $93,673 to 62 members; the House Republican Election Committee (which raises most of its money from special interests), $81,508; Reagan Outdoor Advertising, $72,630 to 75 legislators; and the Utah Auto Dealers Association, $55,867 to 63 members.
By industry and interest group, the largest donors were: fellow politicians donating to lawmakers, $244,373; doctor groups and hospitals, $223,373; political party arms (which raise most of their money from special interests), $205,554; insurance industry, $168,620; drug companies, $138,550; and realtors, $131,421.
Lobbyists who represent multiple clients donated $60,940.
While 8 of every 9 Utah legislators are Mormons, tobacco companies still donated $50,800 and beer companies donated $13,975. (The LDS Church preaches abstinence from tobacco and alcohol.)
Payday lenders have been controversial in Utah, implicated in scandals that toppled former Attorney General John Swallow. They donated $49,400 last year including $27,000 from Check City which played a role in the Swallow case.
Spending • Lawmakers spent just over $3 million last year from the campaign money raised, often in interesting ways repaying themselves for previous loans, hiring family members, and paying for gym memberships, express-lane tolls and even new clothes.
They even gave away a chunk of it, donating $365,000 to other politicians.
Sometimes that money went to help colleagues in tight races. Sometimes it went to members from those running for leadership posts. For example, new House Majority Leader Brad Wilson gave fellow members $17,000 as he was successful in unseating Dunnigan as majority leader.
Lawmakers also reported donating more than $85,000 to local charities from high-school bands to junior rodeos and Boy Scout troops. Of course, those donations may help enhance a legislator's goodwill in the community an important asset come election time. They also reported spending $19,000 for gifts, often to interns, weddings, new babies and campaign volunteers.
The spending included more than $130,000 to repay loans lawmakers had made to their campaigns.
Some of the largest repayments include: Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Orangeville, $30,000; newly elected Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, $27,363; Senate President Niederhauser, $12,512; Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, $11,300; and Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, $9,000.
A few lawmakers put family members on the campaign payroll.
Dunnigan paid his son, Jason, $1,085 for help. Shiozawa paid his son, Peter, $1,000 for work as an assistant campaign manager. Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, paid his wife, longtime Democratic activist Josie Valdez, $1,500 for being his campaign manager.
Three lawmakers used campaign funds to pay penalties related to their campaign-disclosure violations: Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, $100; Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna, $75; and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, $50.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, used at least $176 in campaign funds to clean shirts, ties, pants and suits. Newly elected Rep. Adam Gardiner, R-West Jordan, reported spending $469 after the election for "shirts for [legislative] session."
Three members spent campaign money on gym memberships: Wilson, $120; Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, $47.50; and Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, $15. Utah law specifically prohibits use of campaign funds for personal fees or memberships at a "health club or recreational facility."
Four members spent campaign money on freeway express-lane tolls: Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, $125; Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, $75; Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, $200; and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, $245. Top donors to Utah legislators, 2016
• Utah Association of Realtors, $131,149.
• Education First, $93,673.
• House Republican Election Committee, $81,508.
• Reagan Outdoor Advertising, $72,630.
• Utah Auto Dealers Association, $55,867.
• Republican Senate Campaign Committee, $54,000.
• EnergySolutions, $53,125.
• Utah Hospital Assocation PAC, $50,500.
• Merit Medical, $47,750.
• Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, $44,500.
Source: Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign disclosure forms.