Bill to limit anonymous political donations passes through House
A bill that would put a limit on anonymous donations political candidates can accept has passed through the Utah House of Representatives and is waiting for possible approval from the Senate.
H.B. 91, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell (R-Heber), would ban candidates from using anonymous donations of more than $50. Candidates would be required to instead donate the money to a non-profit organization or a government entity, such as a city.
The bill passed through the House Wednesday on a 66-9 vote and was introduced into the Senate Thursday.
Powell said current law, which allows candidates to accept anonymous donations of any sum, as long as they are reported as such on campaign finance disclosures, presents a loophole that threatens the transparency of the election process.
"While it may look innocent in the beginning, there can be a pattern that someone can fall into," said Powell, a fourth-term representative who doesn’t accept financial contributions from lobbyists, corporations or special-interest groups. "You can imagine the situation where somebody donates the cash, and you don’t really know who it’s from but you kind of have an idea. And then later, they may say, ‘Hey, did you ever find that envelope? That was me by the way.’
"Even worse would be the situation where the candidate and the donor know very well who’s giving the money, but this is a loophole that can be exploited to say, ‘Yeah, I got this money anonymously.’"
Powell said legislators who oppose the bill have argued that voters can see anonymous donations on campaign finance disclosures and decide for themselves if they want to vote a candidate into office. But Powell said that’s not true transparency — something he considers paramount in a state that doesn’t limit the amount of money candidates can raise.
"If we’re going to ask for transparency and not have much more regulation in Utah, we at least ought to be consistent in requiring transparency," he said. "We say that if the voters can see who’s supporting you, then they can make their decision. If we don’t even go that far, that’s not transparency. That’s not disclosure to the voters, as far as I’m concerned."
Powell admitted that the vast majority of anonymous donations likely do not carry inappropriate implications. But he said anonymous donations are becoming more frequent, and he wants to curb any impropriety before it becomes a bigger issue.
"We want to stop the incentive," he said, noting other states have enacted similar laws. "Hopefully the word will spread and donors will realize that they can’t donate this way and they’ll stop making the donations."
One representative who expressed opposition to the bill was Jacob Anderegg (R-Lehi). He agreed with the sentiment of the bill and that there’s a need for greater transparency but argued the $50 threshold is too low.
"Sometimes I’ll have a town hall meeting and I’ll have $150 that has been shoved into the basket that I was handing around," said Anderegg, who voted against the bill. "I’ve got no way of knowing who in the world that came from, yet they gave it to me because they listened to me and agreed with what I said."
Though the bill still has to pass through the Senate — where Powell admits it may face resistance from some legislators — and the desk of Governor Gary Herbert, Powell is confident the bill has enough traction to become law.
"I’m just going to need to continue to gain support and make sure it’s able to pass the Senate and not get amended in some way that the House couldn’t support again," he said. "It’s always quite a rollercoaster ride for a bill."
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