Utah legislators convene Jan. 21 for their 45-day general session, and from looking at a number of pre-filed bills, one can see it will be another re-election year slugfest.

While Democrats across the nation seem energized by the presidential races — the number of New Hampshire residents voting in the Democratic primary was much larger than that for the Republican primary — Utah will remain solidly in the red-state column in 2008.

One can predict no great changes in the Legislature after the 2008 contests.

But what has changed, new legislative campaign reports show, is the growing number of lawmakers who are carrying huge cash balances.

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, has nearly $330,000 between his personal campaign account and his Speaker's PAC.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, has nearly $140,000 in his personal account. And Valentine also has access to more cash via a Utah County GOP PAC that he's helped organize and raise funds for. Other incumbents have $30,000, $50,000, even $80,000 in their campaign accounts.

So what else is going on here?

As demonstrated by former Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens in 2000, a big war chest comes in handy in kicking off a statewide race.

Stephens had several hundred thousand dollars in his campaign accounts — all of which could be used in his governor's race because of Utah's loose campaign finance laws. An early favorite, Stephens was crushed by the better name recognition of now-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., and the even bigger war chests of other contenders. Stephens failed to even come out of the state GOP convention. But Stephens would have been an even greater underdog without his cash.

Valentine is rumored to be looking at the 2010 governor's race. (Huntsman says he will leave that office then.)

Curtis may be looking at any number of bigger races, including a U.S. House contest in 2010 or 2012.

Top legislative aides to both men are also building up their war chests, no doubt hoping to rise to president or speaker.

The rank-and-file Democratic and Republican legislators elect their own leaders from within their party caucuses, and it helps in those elections if one can donate hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to colleagues in need of campaign cash.

What should really be worrying legislative watchers, however, is what strings may come with large cash donations.

As pointed out in various Deseret Morning News stories over the years, state legislators rarely ever raise any money from their own constituents. By far, most of the cash comes from special interests — either from PACs, or businesses or lobbyists.

Since there are no donation limits in Utah state races, a governor or legislator can solicit and accept any size of campaign cash.

Donations of $20,000, $30,000 or more from one individual or PAC have come into the governor's races — which now cost several million dollars. Even in off-election years, when they are not running for office, senators and representatives get routine donations of $1,000 or more from single groups or businesses.

Combine such giving with lobbyist spending on legislators — which tops $100,000 a year for the 104 part-time lawmakers as a whole — and you can see that money is playing an ever greater part in our state's public business.

Legislators make campaign and lobbyist laws. And since the lawmakers all won under the current system of campaign cash collections, and some legislators like the perks that come with gift-taking, there is little or no incentive to change the system.

Since legislators can do anything with their campaign cash, even give it to themselves, at what point does a $100,000 or $200,000 war chest become too much of an enticement?

A legislator may have no intention of taking any, or much, of his campaign money personally. But unforeseen medical costs for a loved one, a business bankruptcy or even a lengthy and costly lawsuit could prove too great a need.

Overall, Utah still has a legislative elective system that is reasonable and manageable. But actions should be taken now to limit campaign contributions and limit how campaign accounts can be used, all with an eye toward keeping the temptation of huge campaign cash under control.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]