Spending two weeks, off and on, looking over the campaign financial filings of Republicans and Democrats running for the Legislature this year leads one to several conclusions.
First, many of Utah's legislative races are, for the most part, funded by special interest groups.This is true mostly for incumbents seeking re-election and for challengers who are almost certain to win - like the GOP nominee in a heavily Republican district.
Second, while the Sept. 15 reports are late in the election year, a lot of money is yet to come in. And as has been the case in just about every election I can remember, the 1998 contests will likely set a new record in spending.
So 1998 won't see a change in Utah legislative contests - special interest money floods the races, which get more and more expensive every two years.
An examination of the incumbents' reports also shows a trend that's been building in the 1990s: Lobbyists and businesses seeking influence with lawmakers are giving more and more money in off-election years.
This is done, of course, because more and more legislators are using their campaign accounts for a variety of growing expenses, which, they say, are connected to serving in the part-time office.
And while years ago legislators either didn't have those expenses or paid for them out-of-pocket, today cash flow is needed over the lean, non-election years. I can remember a time when a state senator didn't raise or spend hardly any money out of his campaign account for three years out of his four-year term.
Today, thousands of dollars flow through legislators' campaign accounts in non-election years.
Now, I understand why the underpaid legislators would look to a source of income to help defray out-of-pocket expenses associated with legislative service. But it's a problem of growing concern.
It reminds me of an interesting conversation members of the Deseret News' editorial board had with former Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, some years ago.
As I recall, the U.S. House had given itself a large pay increase - something like a 30 percent increase - and in return had banned the use of honorariums. That was the practice of representatives traveling around the country and taking $2,000 speaking fees from special interest groups. Honorariums could add up to something like a third of a congressman's yearly income - and almost all used honorariums to supplement their congressional pay.
The Senate hadn't come around to banning honorariums yet. And senators, like Garn, were getting some pressure to do so. Garn, when questioned about this by the editorial board, replied that he didn't want U.S. taxpayers to have to pay more in senators' salaries - and he wasn't stupid enough to cut his income by a third by banning honorariums without a salary increase.
He said something like: "Who better to make up this difference, the private sector or taxpayers?"
We around the table were a bit stunned. I and others wanted senators working for citizens, not traveling around to special interest groups giving speeches for pay, beholden to someone other than citizen taxpayers for their bread and butter. Senators soon banned honorariums and gave themselves a big pay increase.
Utah legislators get very little, if any, honorariums. I asked a couple of leaders about that recently and they said they're lucky to get a stale chicken lunch out of a speech to this or that group, let alone a check.
But campaign money is becoming something of the same thing: Outside income, often from special interest groups, used to defray expenses.
I remember several years ago I noticed on campaign filings that a well-known lobbyist had given out $200 checks to dozens of legislators around Christmas - not a time when legislative candidates are conducting campaign fund raising.
Questioned about it, the lobbyist said she had heard that a number of legislators didn't have much money in their accounts, that the legislative session was coming up and money was needed for various expenses, including constituent questionnaires. One of her clients had $10,000 earmarked for campaign contributions and if she didn't use it, the international firm would take it back at year's end. So she gave it out.
The donations were seen as an act of kindness by some legislators I talked to at the time.
But isn't it strange, when you think about it, that legislators are grateful to lobbyists for donating "campaign" money just before a legislative session so expenses associated with serving can be met.
Sounds to me like it's time for some kind of general, overall review of legislative pay and expenses. Like Garn's situation of years ago, I prefer that our legislators' pay, expenses, whatever, are picked up by the taxpayers, not by special interest groups and lobbyists who want favorable treatment in laws and regulations.