Politics is a blood sport, Gov. Gary Herbert said this week.
And as his democracy commission's recommendations move (or don't move) through the 2010 Legislature, there may be some political blood on Capitol Hill walls.
In the end, you can count on this: If the Utah Legislature adopts campaign contribution limits, those limits will be so high that few, if any, donations will actually be banned.
If there is one thing legislators do well, it is to look out after legislators.
Self-preservation is a politician's main instinct.
Herbert candidly explained that to the 19 members of his Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy on Wednesday as he formally accepted their eight recommendations on government/election reform. He agrees with most but not all of those recommendations.
You can't watch this process without seeing how incumbents/powerbrokers take care of themselves — often while pushing "government reform."
All of this is not necessarily bad. There are instances where you can make the process better for Utah residents and officeholders at the same time.
But in the areas where it is either the public or the public officer, the public officer will always win. At least in the Utah Legislature.
Take the idea of having an independent commission review complaints dealing with elections, candidates and lobbyist filings.
The commission suggests that under the auspices of the lieutenant governor's office — which is supposed to oversee these areas but now has no real enforcement powers — a three-member commission of retired judges be formed to quickly review complaints against candidates, political parties, PACs and lobbyists.
This is NOT an ethics panel for lawmakers or lobbyists. That's another issue entirely, not dealt with by the democracy commission.
Run properly, this new three-judge commission helps both residents and candidates/officeholders. A "frivolous" complaint can quickly be dealt with and the candidate's name cleared. That's a great thing for the candidate who may be blindsided by a complaint just before an election.
But residents would also have a place where they can go to get an impartial ruling when they believe a powerful officeholder isn't following campaign finance law.
On the other side of the commission's recommendations is campaign contribution limits. This clearly pits the interests of residents against those of incumbent legislators, governors and other state officers.
Herbert pointed that out when he told his commission that he needs to raise $2 million for his 2010 campaign and the recommended $10,000 contribution limit over two years for a gubernatorial race just doesn't cut it.
He had $50,000 donations in a fundraiser he held this summer, where he collected around $1 million in one night.
He pointed out that in a state House and Senate race the limit would be $5,000 over two years — total of $5,000 for a House member's term, $10,000 for a senator's four-year term.
Yet on a geographic basis, a statewide race covers 29 times more area (and roughly population) than a state Senate district. Herbert asked, where is the proper "proportionality" in that?
Kirk Jowers, chairman of the commission, pointed out to Herbert that on the federal level, the same size contribution limits apply to U.S. House, U.S. Senate and U.S. presidential races.
The reasoning, said Jowers, is that a presidential candidate can raise funds across the whole United States and thus raise more money than a U.S. House candidate.
But Herbert noted that by far Utah's three U.S. House members collect their campaign funds outside of Utah. Would it be a good thing to force a gubernatorial candidate to raise money outside of Utah?
Herbert also worries that limiting campaign contributions will lead to only rich, self-funding people running for and winning statewide and legislative races.
But should residents really be worried about state officeholders losing their re-elections?
No incumbent governor has lost a race in Utah in 60 years.
Since 2000, 86 percent of state senators who sought re-election have won; 91.3 percent of House incumbents have won.
Like I said, self-preservation is politicians' main instinct. And whatever Herbert and legislators do, or don't do, on campaign contribution limits, that instinct will be followed.
Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].