Although 2007 was not an election year, special interests donated $827,000 in campaign funds to Utah legislators.
With no campaigns last year, lawmakers converted about a third of that cash to what appear to be personal or other uses that have little to do with campaigning, according to Deseret Morning News analysis of the 104 part-time legislators' campaign disclosure forms.
That included paying for new clothes, dry cleaning, car repairs, high-occupancy vehicle lane passes, passports, baby-sitting, travel, Utah Jazz games, parking tickets, wedding or birth gifts, concealed weapons permit classes, wages to a spouse for campaign work, repaying themselves tens of thousands of dollars in earlier campaign loans and even paying themselves for lost income during the general session.
That conversion of campaign money for personal use came on top of the $250,000 in gifts that lobbyists reported giving lawmakers last year (about $2,400 per member). The Morning News analyzed those gifts earlier this month. They ranged from Utah Jazz tickets to college sports tickets, Billy Joel and Bon Jovi concerts, golf, meals and travel.
Matthew Burbank, chairman of the University of Utah's political science department, said that the main reason so many politicians raise so much money year after year even if they don't have an election "is because they can. Lobbyists are always willing to give, in part to keep up good relations" with a legislator.
While lawmakers insist that such money does not buy their votes, critics have long questioned whether it buys extra access for groups wanting to influence legislation.
While campaign finance reform bills have been introduced in the past, major reforms continue to die. No bill has yet been filed in the 2008 Legislature that would curtail the unregulated fundraising and spending of legislative campaign cash.
Meanwhile, Utah continues to have one of the nation's most wide-open set of campaign laws.
State candidates can raise campaign money from anyone, in any amount. They can spend the money in any amount on any legal activity or purchase. The only requirement is disclosure they must say where they got donations of more than $50 and list all their expenditures. It's legal to give campaign money to themselves, with the only requirement that they pay income taxes on the gifts.Lawmakers came into their general session Monday, and during the 45-day session they can't raise any campaign funds. But they still fundraise the rest of the year, even in years in which they are not up for election.
Analysis shows that about 98 percent of the $848,000 in campaign money donated to legislators during the nonelection 2007 year came from special interests such as corporations, lobbyists and political action committees.
Only 2 percent came from either candidates themselves or constituents living within their district boundaries, the newspaper found.
Special-interest money to campaigns amounted to about $827,000, or about $8,000 per member on average for the 104 part-time legislators.
Raising the most in the off-year from special interests was Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, $78,641, followed closely by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, with $75,900. On the other extreme, five members raised no money from special interests, but four of these were just appointed to the Legislature to fill vacancies. (A chart showing totals for all members is at deseretnews.com.)
Among special interests, the health-care industry donated the most, $153,000. That is about $1 of every $5 that special interests gave, or $1,470 per lawmaker, on average. That came as lawmakers are discussing how to reform health care, and possible tax credits and subsidies to help more Utahns obtain health insurance.
The finance industry donated at least $140,700 (about $1,353 per lawmaker, on average). Of note, $30,200 of that came from "payday lenders." Lawmakers are discussing stronger oversight for such lenders, which charge on average more than 500 percent annual interest for short-term loans they give to people with poor credit.The payday loan industry donated more than banks ($25,831) or credit unions ($14,589). Banks and credit unions usually donate the most among financial institutions, as for-profit banks have been battling the nonprofit credit unions over taxes and regulatory issues for years.
Other large donors
Other large donors among special interests include politicians and political parties, $85,600; construction/real estate, $76,700; advertising companies, $37,250; communications, $26,000; waste industry, $17,100; and utility companies, $14,300.
Interestingly, in Utah, with its heavy population of LDS Church members who do not smoke or drink, tobacco companies donated $11,800 and the beer industry $10,700. Also, gay rights groups and activists donated $6,400.
Among individual donors who gave the most were the Utah Association of Realtors, $37,360; Reagan Outdoor Advertising, $34,500; Wal-Mart, $27,200; Molina Healthcare, $25,000; Utah Home Builders, $24,200; the Utah Republican Party, $17,300; EnergySolutions, $17,100; Check City, $13,450; Select Health, $13,350; and Merit Medical, $13,100.Of note, Reagan Outdoor Advertising donated to 69 of the 104 legislators; the Realtors donated to 53; Wal-Mart donated to 32; Pfizer pharmaceuticals donated to 30; Check City donated to 26; and Altria (a tobacco company) donated to 24, as did Qwest.
Many Utah legislators have found creative ways to use those campaign donations.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, gave himself $6,300 in cash from campaign funds for what he simply listed as "income." Draxler said he earns "substantially more" each day as a self-employed appraiser than he does as a legislator. That $6,300 is actually reimbursement for lost wages during his legislative work, he said.
Some legislators don't have Draxler's problem, since their employers keep them on full salary during the 45-day session and monthly interim study days.
Five members put thousands of dollars back into their own wallets as they repaid themselves for loans to earlier campaigns. That included Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, $30,500; Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, $4,500; Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, $2,500; Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, $1,200; and Julie Fisher, R-Fruit Heights, $100.
Wimmer also paid his wife, Sherry, $1,000 for "campaign/delegate organization work."
Five legislators spent a combined $1,980 on new clothes for themselves or their spouses.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, for example, reported spending $364 at Nordstrom to buy his wife, Nancy, a dress for a swearing-in ceremony; part of a $101 expense went to buy her a dress for a ball; $177 at Macy's was for a suit for her; $211 at New York Lerner went for "event clothes" for his wife; and $21 at Forever Young was to buy her some Western boots. Oda spent $21 at Ream's to buy himself some Western boots.Wimmer reported spending $528 at Mr. Mac for suits. Rep. Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley, spent $75 at Kohl's for a sports coat. Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, spent $365 at Men's Wearhouse for suits and shirts and wrote that it was a "50-50 match with personal funds." Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, spent $37 for a Utah Valley University shirt.
Dry cleaning was also a popular item for some lawmakers, who spent $455 combined. For example, Hendrickson spent $111 on it during the year; Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, spent $103; Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, spent $81; Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, spent $68; Rep. Bud Bowman, R-Cedar City, spent $60; and Oda spent $32.
Buttars reported spending $2,500 in "repairs for car." Similarly, Mascaro reported spending $814 for "auto expenses" at car repair shops or dealerships.
Among other interesting car-related expenses were Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, using campaign funds to pay a $10 "parking ticket" to Salt Lake City. (Legislators also spent a combined $1,125 of campaign funds to park their vehicles.) Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, spent $70 for an HOV-lane commuter pass on the freeway. Buttars spent $214 to a car dealer to "upgrade Onstar" on his car. Sen. Brent Goodfellow, R-West Valley, gave himself $50 every couple of months for "gasoline use" in driving around his Salt Lake County-based district.
Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, appears to have spent $500 of campaign funds on Utah Jazz tickets. He paid $500 to lobbyist Spencer Stokes on Jan. 25, 2007, for "event tickets." Stokes reported separately that he had the night before taken two other legislators to a Jazz game at his expense for $500 each. And a Salt Lake Tribune photo shows Eastman on the front row, near the Jazz bench, with the legislators who accepted Stokes' expensive tickets.
Oda, who is an instructor for those wishing to obtain concealed weapons permits, spent $50 on a class for such instructors. He also spent $63 for "snacks for legislative CCW (concealed carry weapons permit) class," another $20 for "pens & pads for legislative CCW class" and $165 to Steve Beckstead for "CCW certification class."Noel spent $656 for "rent paid for part of session" in Salt Lake City. Even though the state pays legislators $90 a day toward a hotel room, Noel says he needs a larger apartment because his wife visits during the session and operates a business from that location.
Giving away money
Lawmakers gave away a lot of their money to others through gifts, donations to charity and contributions to other politicians and political groups.
Legislators combined spent at least $12,100 on gifts. Sometimes they were for weddings or births. Among members who noted giving gifts for such purposes were House Speaker Greg Curtis ($50); Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville ($144); Kiser ($170); Oda ($144); and Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville ($85).
In another kind of gift, Kiser reported spending $59 on "candy for Halloween."
Lawmakers gave at least $48,200 to charities, which could help build good will. Some receiving money included a fund for Crandall Canyon Mine disaster victims ($3,100); the Boys & Girls Clubs ($2,675); Boy Scouts ($800); Human Rights Campaign ($700); and many schools, junior livestock shows, environmental groups and service organizations.
Legislators also gave at least $81,600 to other politicians and political groups or parties. They ranged from local mayoral and city council elections to supporting groups including Equality Utah (gay rights), Utahns for Public Schools (anti-school choice voucher campaign), Parents for School Choice (pro-voucher), the Utah Education Association and the National Rifle Association.Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, gave $5,000 to her husband, Stan Lockhart, for his successful campaign to become chairman of the Utah Republican Party.
Lawmakers also paid $6,800 for annual membership fees to a variety of organizations. It was spent on groups ranging from chambers of commerce to Kiwanis clubs, Rotary clubs, the National Rifle Association, the Utah State Historical Society, the Farm Bureau, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Finally, legislators also used campaign money to pay at least $80,000 for nonelection year travel. Goodfellow spent $120 to obtain passports, and Rep. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, spent $40 of campaign money toward a passport.Most of the travel was related to service in the Legislature, including meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Boston and similar groups in Texas and Florida. Several members also chose to use campaign funds for themselves and spouses for a legislative trip to China, instead of using state funds.
Is it ethical?
While legislators say campaign donations and lobbyist gifts do not buy their votes, critics have long questioned how much extra access it may give special interests that seek to influence legislation.
"It is basically up to the legislator to say what is appropriate use of their campaign funds," Burbank said. "Some of their expenditures may be fine." Legislators clearly have to have appropriate clothing, and so they may justify campaign expenditures on that.
But having a large pot of cash available is also a temptation.
"Does someone need to get his car fixed and he just says, 'I'll use my campaign account,"' when, in fact, the car repair may have little to do with his political activities, Burbank said.
Many times, legislators say, they don't even solicit the cash checks just come in the mail. Others, such as Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Sandy, have fundraising events. Her golf tournament last spring brought in around $30,000 in mostly $1,000 checks from businesses and lobbyists. "The year before my (re-election) campaign I hold a golf tournament. I'm out campaigning in an election year," she said.
In Legislatures gone by, there were bills introduced aimed at tightening lawmakers' personal use of their campaign funds. Former Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, routinely carried such a bill, which sometimes failed without even getting a public hearing.But last November Becker was elected Salt Lake City mayor. And as of Friday there were no prefiled bills or bills being drafted that deal with lawmakers' use of their campaign funds. So it now appears the issue won't be addressed in 2008, an election year for all 75 House members and half of the 29 senators.