SALT LAKE CITY -- This session, Utah lawmakers have passed a number of ethics measures on topics ranging from gifts to conflicts of interest.
But it appears the most significant change proposed -- caps on donations -- won't happen.
Utah is one of only six states that does not currently limit who or how much money can be donated to a campaign. -National Conference of State Legislatures
Polls show strong support for limits, but apparently all-important GOP delegates aren't warm to the idea. Now the issue could prove to be key in the fight over a citizen's initiative, which backs limits on donations.
In Utah, anyone, any corporation, any union can give any candidate any sum of campaign money.
That was poised to change this Legislative session with a bi-partisan commission recommending the state's first limits -- though the governor opposed any.
Kirk Jowers, chairman of the Commission on Strengthening Democracy, said, "We are such an outlier with contribution limits. We'll be one of four states without these limits. Even the limits suggested were very moderate."
Caps on donations, the argument goes, encourage citizen participation and rein in the influence of big money.
Recent polls suggest a large majority of Utahns would back a $2,500 limit. But lawmakers worry limits hurt the little guy, who can't self-fund a campaign.
One lawmaker sponsored a bill to limit donations only to gut it later.
Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, said, "I gave up that bill because I felt as though, after having talked to my constituents, there were concerns about constitutional, first amendment rights related to people's free speech."
Jowers said, "A number of legislators have come and apologized to me and said their delegates have told them that they do not want contribution limits and that that could be a defining vote for them for the session."
In the meantime, a citizens campaign is gathering signatures to put legislative ethics on the ballot in November. They want contribution limits and believe the issue could be a defining one of that fight.
Carole Peterson and Dixie Huefner of Utahns for Ethical Government are on the front lines of that fight. "When you are an incumbent, you have access to all of that money," Peterson said.
"We don't think the public wants special interest money dictating what goes on all the time," Huefner said.
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokesperson today reiterated his position, favoring disclosure and transparency over limits.
A review by the Associated Press found about 30 percent of the governor's $1.4 million campaign war chest would have exceeded the proposed $10,000 limit.