SALT LAKE CITY — A law prohibiting fundraising during Utah's legislative session has at least one Republican resigning his post and another considering stepping down instead of challenging the ban, as candidates have successfully done in other states.
The two state House representatives are seeking congressional seats and say they can't spare the weeks-long gap from fundraising that would start with the Jan. 23 opening of session.
"Any candidate who is looking at federal office will find it becomes extremely difficult to do both jobs," said Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, who will resign next week to run for Congress.
Political donations during sessions are banned in part in at least 28 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some limits only apply to lobbyists and, in most states, they don't apply to federal candidates. In the past several decades, judges have struck down similar laws in Florida, Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina.
Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart said she is not aware of any effort to lift the ban in Utah and that she would oppose it if there were.
"We don't want to mix donations with the (legislative) process, with what the people have elected us to do. That's wrong," she said last week on Salt Lake Community College's monthly program "Capitol Voices."
"I don't think it matters if it's a federal race. I think it just smells bad," the Provo Republican said. "I don't you'll see us change that at all."
Clark says he won't challenge the Utah ban in court. Neither will Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, who also is running for Congress and is considering resigning from the state Legislature.
"I am a middle-class, blue-collar American worker," Wimmer said, adding that he can't afford to not campaign during session.
In Missouri, lawmakers tried for a second time in 2006 to institute the ban by applying it to challengers as well as officeholders.
But a state judge blocked it, saying it violated free speech rights and did not address problems raised with a similar 1994 Missouri law.
Also, while Oregon's ban hasn't been challenged in court, the NCSL says the state's attorney general issued a ruling in 2001 that said the law was unconstitutional and would not be enforced.
Idaho lawmakers, who have a schedule much like Utah's that leaves only a few weeks between the end of the legislative session and party conventions, turned back an attempt by Democrats in 2009 to institute a similar blackout period.
Utah's restrictions were reinforced last month by Lt. Gov. Greg Bell in a letter to legislators that said the law clearly prohibits donations for any race to legislators or the governor during a legislative session.
However, Mark Thomas, director of Utah's elections office, said legal precedent suggests that if somebody were to challenge the law it may not pass constitutional muster, especially for federal candidates.
But someone first has to challenge it and lawmakers are loath to do so, fearing it might taint their image with voters.
Wimmer said even though the ban has already impacted him when he was forced to cancel a major fundraising event in October because of a special session, he won't challenge the law because he thinks lawmakers should avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
At the same time, though, he can't lose the fundraising days during Utah's session Jan. 23 to March 3.
"I can't put my own money into this race," said Wimmer, a retired police officer who owns two small businesses.
As the former House Speaker, Clark has a strong reputation among Republicans. But he is also running for the 2nd Congressional District against multiple GOP candidates and will face a convention fight in mid-April, barely a month after the end of this year's session.
"The amount of money that would be needed for a federal race is a multiple many times of what is needed for a state race." Clark said.
Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said even though his state doesn't have such a ban, it would be unnecessary and moot.
"It's a practice not to do fundraising while we're in session," Denney said. "I don't necessarily think there's a whole lot of difference between raising money in session or out, unless you're voting on legislation a lobbyist has been lobbying for. I don't think there's any real problem with having a fundraiser in your districts, a tea or coffee, and have your constituents contribute. But we don't even do that, or don't attempt to."
Meanwhile, state Senate Republican Dan Liljenquist resigned on Thursday in the clearest indication yet that he plans to challenge six-term U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch in a race that will test the clout of conservative activists going into next year's elections. However, it wasn't immediately clear if Liljenquist's decision to resign had anything to do with the fundraising ban.
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One of Wimmer's congressional opponents, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, said he'll stay in the Utah Legislature because of an ongoing battle over immigration laws. Earlier this year, he was the sponsor of an enforcement bill that he wants to tweak because of concerns raised by the U.S. Justice Department.
If he is in the Legislature, he doesn't expect to do much campaigning and doesn't plan on challenging the ban. He has said he will resign, too, to focus on the federal race — but only after the state session ends
"If I'm a legislator, I'm going to be a legislator," said Sandstrom. "I may not have the time to be out talking to people. But I have an obligation to those who elected me to remain serving."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy