On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Brian King’s campaign finance bill hit a snag when the House Government Operations Committee voted unanimously to hold HB60, ostensibly because of concerns about the Swallow scandal.
King’s bill would limit donations from individuals to candidates to $10,000 for statewide races and $5,000 for legislative races.
“I want to see if there is something we can do to address dark money … in the form of greater disclosure and transparency,” King said according the Salt Lake Tribune.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the progressive non-profit Alliance for a Better Utah (ABU), also spoke in support of King’s bill, arguing that “Utahns, unfortunately, have the perception that politicians are corrupt coming off the attorney general’s scandal,” and that passage of the bill, “send a message that [Utah legislators] are concerned with that perception.”
Yet, when given the chance to support transparency laws in 2013, both King and Martindale came down in opposition.
During the 2013 session, Representative Greg Hughes, now the Speaker of the Utah House, sponsored a bill to end the flow of dark money flowing through shadowy organizations to influence elections. Though both King and Martindale are advocating for transparency now, they sang a different tune when it became clear that Hughes’ bill would require greater disclosure from organizations that included ABU.
Hughes’ bill, HB43 (the so-called “anti-Jason Powers” bill), required that non-profits that engage in political campaigns must disclose their donors, with exceptions for subscribers and members under a certain level. The law required from non-profits the a similar kind of specificity and transparency as required of individuals giving money to directly to candidates.
The response to the bill? Never have so many Utah Democrats opposed an increase in campaign finance regulations.
The question is why would Utah Democrats would speak out and vote against a law (2013’s HB43) that increased transparency and limited the dark money exposed by the John Swallow scandal, and then this year propose campaign finance regulations, ostensibly for the same reasons that Hughes proposed HB43.
Hughes’ bill required greater transparency from dark money organizations, while King’s bill would limit the ability of individuals to give to candidates.
King’s own comments could have been pulled from the 2013 debate over HB43: requiring non-profits to disclose donations above a certain level was to “address dark money…in the form of greater disclosure and transparency.”
What gives? What happened in the last two years? Did the Democrats do an about-face, or is something else at work?
The difference is that Hughes’ law required that non-profits be transparent, requiring organizations like the Alliance for a Better Utah to report their donors, something ABU has been reluctant to ever do. In fact, ABU has gone to lengths to argue that it is a non-partisan actor in Utah politics, (check out the comments here for an extensive example from Josh Kantor, a founder of ABU) rather than the progressive/liberal/left-leaning organization that it is.
On the other hand, King’s proposal this year, HB60, attempts to limit individuals’ contributions to candidates, but not to corporations, effectively tying candidates hands while big non-profits swoop with vast campaign war chests filled by unrestricted donations.
Although Martindale argues that the bill is related to a lack of trust after the Swallow scandal, the size of individual donations was not an issue that arose during the House or the Lieutenant Governor’s investigations in 2012. Rather, it was the role of shadowy and opaque non-profits in funneling money around existing campaign finance laws to manipulate elections.
Which is exactly the problem that HB43, passed in 2013, was intended to address.
King and Martindale keep using the word “transparent” to describe their campaign finance caps, when really what they mean is “individual limits.” Limiting campaign donations doesn’t increase transparency. It just decreases speech.
If you’re interested in learning more about why Democrats are shy about regulating the campaign donations of non-profits, check out the book The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado.