This is a column about the growing expenses of federal and state campaigns and one solution that will open up the election process and reduce what I see as a growing evil among us — special interest money.

It is a column that will be opposed by about every elected official in Utah (and many other states) and many Utahns, as well.

In looking over the recent filings by the U.S. Congress candidates and candidates for the Utah Legislature, fellow reporter Lee Davidson and I couldn't help but notice not only the increasing fundraising many candidates are conducting but also the number of candidates who are self-funding their races.

There is a lot of debt being taken on by candidates as they write themselves campaign checks, hoping someday to pay themselves back.

In recent years a number of congressional candidates spent a lot of their own cash on their campaigns, only to lose: David Leavitt, $236,208; LaVar Christensen, $575,600; Steve Thompson, $32,207; Steve Olsen, $32,442; John Jacob, $624,145; and Tim Bridgewater, $514,635.

GOP 2nd District candidate Bill Dew is still in his race this year, and he's loaned his campaign $349,000 already.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, rang up $1.67 million in loans to himself before he forgave that debt in the early 2000s. So Cannon just lost that money. Since then Cannon again loaned his campaign $138,000, which he still owes. Since Cannon, a millionaire, lost the June GOP primary to Jason Chaffetz, it is unlikely he will be able to raise money to pay himself back.

In fact, it's unlikely any of the self-loaners listed above will be able to raise money and pay themselves back. (A political note here: Chaffetz managed to beat Cannon without loaning his campaign any money; Chaffetz gave his campaign around $10,000, which he can't recover. Chaffetz's campaign is debt free.)

A number of legislative candidates are also loaning their campaigns money. If they win election, the special interest money tree kicks in, and in most cases sitting legislators can raise enough money — especially over several elections — to pay themselves back, should they choose.

Some lawmakers just write off their first campaign loans. Others wait until they finally leave office, and then with the leftover money in their campaign account repay themselves. (Under Utah's lax campaign finance laws, legislators can do anything legal with their campaign funds, even just give it to themselves.)

And incumbent lawmakers usually have little trouble raising enough money to run for re-election — in fact, a number of legislators raise money only from special interest groups and lobbyists, with none of their constituents contributing to their races. Accordingly, if some lawmakers pay back their own campaign loans, they are doing it with special interest and lobbyist money — bringing a whole new level of conflict of interest issues to the forefront.

Can we level the rich man's campaigning advantage?

Can we change the campaign finance systems to let low- or moderate-income people run successfully for office?

Can we get special interest/lobbyist money out of campaigning?

We can take one big step — public financing of congressional and state races.

I can almost hear the protest screaming. What? Now you want us to use taxpayer money, our hard-earned money, to pay for these guys' campaign ads, for their radio and TV commercials? You have to be nuts?

Hey, when I first started writing about politics 30 years ago, I was with you. I was strongly against public financing of campaigns. But watching the current system work over the years, I've changed.

Some of the most important decisions made for us are being made by people stuck in a money-corrupting campaign finance system — both federal and state.

In the last Utah governor's race, where there are no limits on contributions, checks of $30,000 or $50,000 a pop were coming in. Could you take a check for $50,000 and honestly say it would have no influence on your decision-making?

A few legislative candidates may get 30 percent or more of all of their campaign funds from one or two special interests. How is that guy going to vote on those special interests issues?

Of course, public financing of political campaigns won't happen. Why would the winners of campaigns have any incentive to change a system that allowed them to win or help a challenger defeat them?

No, the congressional and Utah's campaign finance systems will continue slugging along. With citizens asking: Is my representative really working for me or for the people funding his campaigns?


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