As the 2013 Utah Legislature convenes this week, several prominent political figures in the state have called for a variety of ethics reforms in response to recent media accounts of alleged lobbyist influence over elected officials. These reforms range from prohibiting private consulting work by state employees to creating an independent ethics commission to review allegations of impropriety by Utah's executive-branch officials.
In keeping with these calls for reform, this week I introduced legislation to limit the size of campaign contributions made to elected officials in Utah state government. Known as the Governing Under The Influence (GUI) Act, the bill prohibits any donor from contributing more than $9,999 during a single election cycle to a candidate for state office such as state senator, representative, attorney general or governor.
As a state, we recognize the hazards posed by driving under the influence of alcohol, and we make laws to prevent the damage caused by that influence. In similar fashion, we should recognize the hazards posed by the influence of lobbyists, corporations and special-interest groups when they donate extraordinarily large sums of money to our elected officials and candidates.
The majority of donations to state candidates and officeholders are less than $10,000, and so most officials will be operating under the legal limit if the bill is enacted. Still, I believe that establishing a single, basic cap on campaign contributions is an important step.
Several members of the Utah Legislature, including myself, voluntarily refuse to accept any money from lobbyists, special-interest groups and corporations. I encourage all state candidates and officeholders to adopt this practice, but until they do, the Governing Under The Influence Act will put an end to the most egregious special-interest donations of $10,000 or more.
Utah is one of only five states that impose no limits on campaign contributions to state candidates. Every state surrounding Utah has donation limits. For example, Idaho caps contributions at $5,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for legislative candidates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Within Utah, Salt Lake County prohibits donations greater than $6,000 to candidates for county offices, according to the Salt Lake County Clerk's office.
I believe citizens really do want to trust their elected officials. But the presence of special-interest money in our political system makes it difficult for officeholders to win and keep that trust. The GUI Act will help to restore the legitimacy of our democratic institutions in the eyes of the public.
I have refused to accept any contributions from lobbyists, corporations or special interest groups since I first ran for the Legislature in 2008. Both Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross) and Rep. Ed Redd (R-Logan) now follow this same practice. There may be others, but I have not yet been able to identify any.
I encourage more of my fellow state officeholders to give abstinence a try. It is amazing how willing friends and neighbors are to contribute to your campaign expenses when you tell them that you don't take money from lobbyists. It seems to restore their faith in the system.
But for now, I hope that the recent comments by many state political leaders about the need for reforms will give the Governing Under The Influence Act a fighting chance to pass in this year's legislative session.
To put it simply, recent events show that governing under the influence of lobbyists and special interests is hazardous to the health of Utah's political system. We need to place limits on it just as we would on any other public danger.
Kraig Powell represents District 54 in the Utah House of Representatives, which includes Wasatch County and part of Summit County.