SALT LAKE CITY — Following the conclusion of one of Salt Lake City's most expensive mayoral races, the City Council is considering campaign finance reform.
Mayor Ralph Becker and challenger Jackie Biskupski together spent nearly $1.4 million on this year's race. Becker spent more than $860,000, but Biskupski will likely take his seat after spending nearly $540,000 and narrowly winning on Nov. 3. That means the mayoral candidates spent nearly $37 for each vote of the roughly 38,000 ballots cast in this year's election. By law, final results can't be released until they are finalized by canvassers on Nov. 17.
"There's a big question about whether people who are really interested in representing regular people can be competitive in big elections," City Councilman Luke Garrott told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright on Tuesday. "And that bothers a lot of people. They want elections to be competitive among people who aren't necessarily hanging out with the big donors all the time."
It's not the first time Garrott has advocated for stricter campaign contribution limits in Salt Lake City. He, along with two other candidates running for mayor this year, did not qualify past the primary, and he declined corporate donations.
"If politicians are hanging out with the wealthy all the time, how are they going to know what's on the mind of real, regular people?" Garrott said. "That's just not good for democracy."
Currently, Salt Lake's laws limit corporate or individual donations to $1,500 in City Council races and $7,500 in mayoral races.
The Utah chapter of Move to Amend — a national group aiming to undo the 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures — proposed to the council earlier this year to limit donations to $500 in council races and $1,000 in mayoral races, and ban corporate money.
"It's just getting out of hand," said Virginia Curtis Lee with Move to Amend, speaking of the mayoral campaign spending this year.
Massive independent spending entered Salt Lake's mayoral elections for the first time this year when Utahns for Independent Government, a political action committee led by owners of the billboard company Reagan Outdoor Advertising, funded several billboards for Biskupski. The group spent more than $140,000 on this year's election.
The City Council on Tuesday discussed various options to tighten the city's campaign contribution limits and require more transparency from PAC spending, including further limiting individual contributions, eliminating donations from corporations and nonprofits, and prohibiting campaign funds from carrying over from previous years.
According to a report prepared by the City Council's staff, campaign finance data from 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections show successful mayoral candidates receive $460 on average from each donor. That figure would shrink to $230 if corporate contributions were excluded.
Garrott also raised the possibility of using public money to provide residents with vouchers to give to candidates of their choice, which could give an edge to average residents overshadowed by big-dollar corporate spending, he said.
On Nov. 3, Seattle voters approved that method, meaning they will each receive four $25 "democracy vouchers" to give to their prefered candidates starting in 2017. To fund the new voucher system, voters gave the green light to a $30 million, 10-year property tax levy, according to the Associated Press.
"Like water running downhill, money finds the cracks," Garrott said. "So we know limiting contributions isn't going to get the job done."
Councilman Stan Penfold expressed interest in incentivizing voter participation in elections through public financing, but Councilman Charlie Luke had reservations.
"On the surface, public financing sounds great, but it's extremely expensive," Luke said. "I would have a very hard time not only convincing myself, but also convincing my constituents that financing a public campaign is more important than fixing the potholes on their streets."
Luke also worried that if the council acts too quickly on campaign finance reform, its policy changes could result in unintended consequences, like, he said, how federal decisions aiming at controlling the influence of money in politics have lead to the creation of super PACs.
"I'm supportive of looking at this, but I don't think we're there yet," he said. "We need to have a very deliberate approach to how we do this or we could end up creating a situation where it is far more damaging overall than what we were trying to accomplish."
Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall pointed out there is "an assumption" that limiting campaign finance reform would increase democratization.
Councilwoman Lisa Adams said she believes Salt Lake does need to see some "significant changes" to its campaign finance system.
"I think we have a huge hurdle to overcome with super PACs," Adams said. "I think it is fair to say they influenced in a significant way the mayoral race, so I would like to see some meaningful, clear reforms that make a difference and aren't easy to circumvent."
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