Switching an earlier position, Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday night that he may accept state campaign contribution limits, as recommended by a special democracy commission, if the limits for gubernatorial and other statewide offices are increased above the commission's $20,000.
Herbert's support is clearly needed for the most controversial of the eight recommendations made by the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy to pass in the upcoming Legislature. The commission formally presented its findings to Herbert in the Capitol.
But a number of leading GOP lawmakers have already said they don't like contribution limits at all, favoring instead "instantaneous" disclosure of campaign donations.
Herbert told commission member Randy Dryer, who had previously suggested even more restrictive donation limits, "If you and I can compromise on this," it may well be accepted by legislators.
All sides, though, agree much more work must be done in the legislative ranks before the commission's recommendations are put into law or even some semblance of the them is adopted.
Herbert had previously told the 19-member commission that he doesn't favor any campaign donation limits. And he again listed the reasons for his objections to commission members.
"My concern is not the electorate," who may find some solace, justified or not, in thinking that large donations influence officeholders' actions, Herbert said.
Rather, the governor is concerned that by limiting donations, wealthy candidates will have a superior chance of winning elections through self-donations, "shrinking the pool of those unable" to compete financially. Good but "impoverished" candidates may not be able to get their message out to voters, and thus those well qualified in experience and ideas are shut out of office, he said.
Herbert frankly talked about how the commission's "one-size-fits-all" contribution limits really don't fit all.
"I have to raise $2 million for a special election" next year, Herbert said. He must win election to serve out former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s final two years of the term. And the commission's $20,000 limit in a gubernatorial race is not "proportional" to the limits put on a state House candidate ($5,000) or a state Senate candidate ($10,000).
"I have more homes to reach" in a gubernatorial campaign, 29 times more than a state Senate candidate, Herbert said.
Just this summer, Herbert held his Governor's Gala, a fundraiser where some groups and businesses gave him $50,000. He raised around $1 million in that single event, but tens of thousands of dollars given in that event wouldn't have been allowed under the $20,000 limit, a review by the Deseret News found.
Herbert also questioned several of the other eight recommendations made by the commission, which was originally set up by Huntsman in January before he resigned his office in August to become ambassador to China.
There may be "unintended consequences" to allowing voter registration on Election Day, the governor said.
While that may allow more Utahns to vote, Herbert said, "I'd take a lesser number (of voters) if we got more informed" voters.
Kirk Jowers, commission chairman and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the commission decided to support same-day registration after the last Legislature "significantly restricted" the possibility of fraudulent voting by making all voters provide identification before they could get a ballot. County clerks now require I.D. before registering a voter, so it doesn't make much sense to deny voting at the polls with the same I.D. requirements.
Herbert, while basically supporting the recommendation, said he still had some concerns over setting up an independent commission, made up of three retired judges, that would "quickly" review complaints over election law violations, as well as candidate and lobbyist financial filing. He worried that some dishonorable people could make last-minute complaints just before an election to harm a candidate politically.
"Politics is a blood sport," the governor said. "It brings out the best in people, and unfortunately, sometimes the worst in people. It's hard to take politics out of politics, and some may do something for political gain, not on principle."
Herbert praised the commission, saying of all state boards and commissions you couldn't find more knowledgeable people.
"I think your work will bear fruit," he said. "The public at large may not know it, but they will be benefited by your work for generations to come."
The commission's report and membership can be found at strengthendemocracy.org.