Republican state lawmakers love getting $500 to $2,000 from their own personal political action committee.

They like getting the much-needed campaign cash with no strings attached, not having to begdeep-pocket lobbyists for money and be beholden to them later.

But the Committee For a Republican Majority - the GOP campaign fund-raising arm for legislative seats - is getting bigger each year, and some lawmakers worry it is being used by Republican legislative leaders to protect their power.

This past election the committee raised and doled out almost $65,000 to GOP House and Senate candidates. Only the huge, 16,000-member Utah Education Association spent more money on legislative candidates, PAC reports show. The UEA and its affiliated teacher unions spent more than $70,000 on legislative races.

It's not the amount of money the committee raises that worries some Republicans - it's how the money is raised and spent.

In most cases, the Republican leaders who run the committee pass out checks to GOP legislative candidates of between $100 and $2,000. There are exceptions - GOP House District 23 candidate Marianne Stoddard got $5,500 from the committee, money used in her failed effort to unseat Democratic Rep. Frank Pignanelli - an outspoken opponent who is often a thorn in the side of Republicans. Pignanelli was just elected House minority leader.

In fact, it's the GOP leaders' use of committee money that is causing the displeasure. Despite a 12-member group on the committee that is supposed to shield leaders from such criticism, some Republicans think the money is doled out by the House speaker, majority leader and other leader aides with an eye toward buying votes for leadership positions.

Also, the committee has become such a powerful fund-raising arm it has eclipsed the State Republican Party's role in helping legislative candidates - even harmed individual candidates' ability to raise money on their own, critics say.

The controversy over GOP legislative leaders raising money to help rank-and-file members' elections isn't new. But with the large amount the committee is now bringing in, the problems have become exaggerated. Wednesday, the House GOP caucus discussed the matter.

"Jim Hansen first did this," recalled outgoing Rep. Frank Knowlton, R-Layton, "a long time ago." Hansen, a former speaker, is now in the U.S. House. "He raised money for nine new members during their races, they knew him and he helped them. It was only natural they vote for him (for speaker)." Those nine were the difference in Hansen winning the speaker's post, Knowlton recalled. Former Speaker Robert Garff had two different PACs he used in raising money for favored GOP legislative colleagues.

Rep. Craig Moody, R-Sandy, who is the House majority leader and who Tuesday night was elected speaker starting in January, was accused in an anonymous magazine article this summer of abusing the committee in an effort to buy speakership votes. Moody vehemently denies it.

While there are problems with the committee, it has proven valuable in many other ways. "True, we no longer have to go to the big lobbyists, UP&L, Mountain Fuel or (Doug) Foxley and ask for money, (which comes) like it or not with the expectation of some influence on legislation," Knowlton said. (Foxley, the former campaign manager of GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter, is recognized as one of the most powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill.)

"It's great to get money from a source that doesn't tie you down to one special interest," Knowlton said. But since fund raising for the committee is done by legislative leaders - the speaker and majority leader - it very well may tie those men to powerful special interests, which could be worse.

The anonymity of committee funds is appealing. For example, sources told the Deseret News that the Utah Public Employees Association used the state party to "launder" money to the committee, which in turn gave cash to Republican candidates, some of whom wouldn't want to take direct contributions from the main state employee union. Reports show that the UPEA PAC gave $13,500 to the state Republican Party, and that $14,000 from the party was passed along to the committee. Assuming that information is correct, the government employee union provided 21 percent of the Republican PAC's campaign funds.

The transaction was perfectly legal. Money is often given to the committee and earmarked for specific candidates or given to the party and so earmarked.

That kind of giving kills two birds with one golden stone: The union can use its funds to help GOP leaders retain their posts and at the same time contribute to Republican candidates at arms length. When political favors are requested, there's no direct paper trail.

The largest contributors to the committee this year include: Geneva Steel, $8,000; Sinclair Oil, $2,550; Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, $2,200; Phillip Morris (cigarette makers), $2,500; Huntsman Chemical, $2,000; and Utah Business Advertising Association, $2,000.