Shadley: Utah Needs Campaign Finance Candidates


(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


In the midst of a global pandemic that has left Utahns struggling to maintain jobs, housing and healthcare, you may be surprised to hear that pro-billboard legislation has found its way to valuable time on the Senate floor. For Rep. Suzanne Harrison, this comes as no surprise. In Utah, or as she calls it, “the wild, wild west of campaign finance,” there is absolutely zero limits to campaign contributions of all kinds to state legislature candidates. Disturbingly, attempts to impose modest restrictions on campaign contributions, like those introduced by Rep. Harrison last year, have been overwhelmingly thwarted by Utah’s legislature. As a result, billboard companies like Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which has donated tens of thousands of dollars to some of Utah’s highest-ranking politicians, are able to influence the legislation that receives the most attention from our representatives. That is not representation of the people, but of those with the deepest pockets.

Although there are currently no limits on contributions to state legislative candidates, there are rules in place about how campaign money can be spent. With little hope of introducing modest limits after last year’s attempt, Rep. Harrison, guided by her “pragmatic approach,” has introduced H.B. 310 into the legislative session. She seeks to “bring transparency and accountability to political campaigning” with the bill. By creating a legal penalty for “dirty campaign tactics” like anonymous mailers and requiring campaigns to disclose how they spend their money in the last month of an election, H.B. 310 will allow Utah to actually enforce the existing state laws on campaign finance. While it won’t necessarily diminish the excessive power of donors, the bill will hopefully tamp down the mean-spirited campaign tactics that have shoved productive political discourse to the backburner. And yet, despite its reasonableness and moderation, H.B. 310 is still unlikely to pass because any type of campaign finance reform inherently threatens those in positions of power.

The outlook for campaign finance reform in Utah is grim and unfortunately, it is federally as well. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, effectively allowed for the creation of super PACs (Political Action Committees). Unlike normal PACs or individual donors, super PACs are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money for or against any given campaign as long as it is independent from the campaign itself.

The wealthiest individuals and corporations donate obscene amounts of money to elected officials in exchange for more favorable legislation. These favorable pieces of legislation are put into place and provide a significant return on investment for donors. This snowballs into even greater wealth inequality and larger influence for the wealthiest Americans. We’ve seen how this can happen right here in Utah, and the legislation can be far more nefarious than billboard deregulation. In America, it’s no secret that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and this is one of the ways it happens.

Ending unlimited campaign contributions depends on overturning a number of Supreme Court decisions including Citizens United and passing incredibly difficult legislation at the state level. Instead of trying to limit the amount of money that can be spent, our representatives should focus on policy proposals that limit the influence that those donations grant. This is done by giving power to watchdog organizations and drowning out the money of corporations by increasing the quantity and quality of donations from ordinary citizens. In Utah, H.B. 310 would achieve the former if it were to pass.

Fortunately, in the uphill battle to pass campaign finance reform at the state and federal level, Rep. Harrison is not fighting alone. High-quality policy proposals at the federal level like H.R.1 are gaining traction and offer legitimate solutions to reigning in the influence of money in politics. Some of those proposals include enacting a small donor matching program in congressional and presidential races to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans, strengthening the FEC so that it can effectively enforce campaign finance laws and increasing protections against foreign donations and intervention. These are by no means all the proposals that must be passed, but H.R.1 would be a significant step in the right direction.

While the likelihood of state-level reform happening given the current composition of the Utah legislature is low, it’s important to remember that its composition is ever-changing. Rep. Harrison impressed upon me the need for people with whom this issue resonates to “consider running for office or getting involved with policy reforms because we need elected officials who care about getting money out of politics.” For an action that has bipartisan support within the public, our elected officials remain stagnant. To achieve greater levels of representation, ordinary Utahns must organize around candidates pledging to truly represent them like Rep. Harrison. The only question left remaining is how we go about finding more people like her. Perhaps that would be a better use for our billboards.


[email protected]