Over the years, repeated attempts have been made in the Utah Legislature to adopt campaign and lobbying reforms, particularly the reporting of early donations and gifts from lobbyists. But these efforts have always been shot down.
Lawmakers often were affronted by the proposals, saying such suggestions implied legislators were somehow weak or unethical.It's true there have been no major scandals, but that's no excuse for not having laws on the books requiring all donations to be in public view. Utah is one of only four states that do not require candidates to disclose all contributions before an election and one of only four states that do not require lobbyists to report the gifts they give or elected officials the gifts they receive.
Lobbyists play a major role on the legislative scene. By unofficial estimates, they spent what amounted to $60,000 for each of the nearly 500 bills passed during the previous 45-day session, with no accounting of who got what or from whom.
However, all of that may change if the Legislature goes along with a task force established by the Republican Party this week to study and propose legislation dealing with gifts and campaign contributions. Suggestions are to be considered by the January 1991 legislative session.
The task force has been asked to examine various campaign, election and lobbying issues. Some of them are eminently sensible, some are open to question, and at least one is ridiculous. But the effort is a start.
Among the possibilities being studied:
- Tougher, more specific disclosure laws on campaign fund raising, with candidates required to report all contributions and all money raised as campaign funds to be spent for campaign purposes.
At present, the law requires only that candidates report money they receive between the April 15 filing deadline and the election. Donations made before April 15 do not have to be reported. Currently, leftover campaign funds can be used for personal expenditures.
- Registration of all lobbyists and reporting of all direct and indirect contributions or gifts. At present, lobbyists are asked to sign in with the lieutenant governor's office and pay a $10 fee every two years.
- A requirement that legislators report all direct or indirect donations, gifts, meals or other favors received by lobbyists. The idea is to reduce the temptation for wrong-doing by shining a light in some dark corners.
- Party registration in which party primary elections are limited to those of that party, so that Republicans choose Republican finalists and Democrats choose Democrats. The present situation allows cross-over voting. This is clearly a response to the Republican primary election earlier this fall in which Dan Marriott, a lopsided winner in the state GOP convention, was defeated in the Republican primary by Genevieve Atwood - with the help of what some say was a heavy cross-over vote of Democrats. But a closed primary system was rejected in Utah two decades ago.
- Automatic voter registration in which anyone over 18 with a driver's license is eligible to vote. Previously urged chiefly by Democrats, this simplified system could mean more voter participation.
- Limitation of terms. House members would be limited to three consecutive terms and senators to two terms, a maximum of 12 years. This is a less appealing idea. Term limitation is hardly needed in a Legislature that generally has a significant turnover rate and is only a part-time body.
- Free advertising in the media. Free five-minute time blocks on statewide television for major general election candidates and a half page in daily newspapers. How absurd! Candidates are covered in detail in news columns without having the media subsidize partisan political campaigns. What's next? Free room and board for candidates?
Clearly, this is a mixed bag of proposals. But some elements, particularly those dealing with financial disclosure and lobbyist donation reports, ought to be adopted without major argument or delay.