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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is only a few days away from escaping this legislative session without having to limit the amount of campaign contributions he receives as he enters his first election at the top of his party's ticket.
Last week, Herbert's GOP colleagues gutted a bill that would have imposed limits on campaign contributions in Utah for the first time.
Utah is one of only six states, and soon to be four, that does not limit who or how much money can be donated to a campaign, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With the state's legislative session ending Thursday, the likelihood of any caps being placed on donations is quickly dwindling.
That's the way Herbert likes it.
Herbert contends that permitting donations of all sizes allows less affluent people to win office, but an Associated Press review of financial disclosures from the past two years shows Utah's lack of campaign contribution limits has largely only benefited a handful of Republican incumbents.
With one exception, the 50 largest individual contributions to a candidate's account were all to Republicans. Democratic Sen. Karen Mayne cracked the list by having $61,000 from her deceased husband's account transferred to her when she filled his seat.
A bipartisan commission recommended that Utah put in place its first caps this year, but the move was immediately opposed by Herbert.
The AP's review shows about 30 percent of the $1.4 million Herbert has raised wouldn't be allowed under the commission's proposal. Through January, Herbert has received 25 donations that exceed the proposed $10,000 limit for political action committee and executive office candidates, including corporate donations as large as $50,000.
Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The commission recommended a $5,000 cap on donations to legislative and state school board candidates.
Out of more than 22,000 contributions to candidates and political action committees in the past two years, only about 200 individual donations exceeded the proposed limits.
About 20,000 of the contributions were for less than $1,000.
But when contributions did exceed proposed limits, they often doubled or tripled that threshold and were almost always donations to incumbents or former lawmakers seeking their old seats.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, both Republicans, have received numerous contributions from their PACs and others that are well over the $10,000 limit the commission has proposed.
Shurtleff received multiple $20,000 donations from corporations, including 1-800 CONTACTS, Siegfried & Jensen, and Usana Inc. in 2008, when he easily defeated his Democratic challenger whose largest donation was for $7,500.
Former House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, both received $20,000 donations from private school voucher supporters in 2008. After Curtis lost his re-election bid, he donated $25,000 to former GOP state lawmaker Mark Walker the following year.
Sen. Chris Buttars, a West Jordan Republican, received a $10,000 donation from SME Industries Inc. in 2009.
Dixie Huefner, a spokeswoman for Utahns for Ethical Government, said lawmakers' inability to pass any contribution limits may help her group's cause to get an ethics initiative on the ballot with much stricter campaign finance proposals than the governor's commission proposed. That includes a ban on corporate donations for state lawmakers and a $2,500 contribution limit.
"I think they don't want to change the status quo. I think they like it," she said. "Those contribution limits were modest to begin with -- that tells you something."
Herbert's Democratic rival, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, has received five donations in excess of $10,000 through February. One of those was a transfer of $76,000 from his mayoral account, which primarily consisted of donations of $2,000 or less. Corroon's largest individual donation is for $25,000.
Campaign manager Donald Dunn said Corroon favors a $10,000 contribution limit, but he doesn't want to play by a different set of rules than Herbert.
"He's not going to limit himself with a voluntary limit because he is going to be competitive to win this race," Dunn said.
Lawmakers who gutted the contribution limits said they were worried about making it difficult for organizations that spread donations to local, state and national affiliates to comply with a new law. They also said they feared setting limits would violate free speech rights, although courts have ruled otherwise.
Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and the former chairman of the governor's commission, finds the arguments against limits disingenuous.
"It's stunning that 45 other states have figured out a way to set contribution limits and we're trying to make a procedural or other excuses for not being able to get it done," he said. "Practical experience and actual studies both show that unlimited contributions create barriers to entry for the so-called little guy and can enhance incumbent protection. ... People invest in them because incumbents are the most likely to win and donors will always bet on the winner."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)