If you ever needed proof that lobbyists reign supreme on Utah’s Capitol Hill, consider what happened on the final day of the 2014 session.
SB 97, which would have forced lobbyists to disclose how much time they donate to a candidate in the race to fill a mid-term vacancy, ran into all sorts of opposition in the House after sailing through the Senate earlier in the session. Ultimately, it was defeated.
Mid-term vacancies are an important part of Utah’s process. About ⅓ of all the lawmakers on the Hill got there from being appointed through a mid-term vacancy. Those candidates that win their seats through appointment immediately become the incumbent without ever facing an open election as delegates are the only ones who get to vote on them the first time around. As you know, winning elections as an incumbent is a heck of a lot easier than as a challenger.
So, why the focus on lobbyists?
Filling a midterm vacancy is often a short process - spanning just a couple of weeks. If a lobbyist decides to help a candidate, they can bring a wealth of information and expertise...enough to give anyone a leg up in a compacted and complicated political process.
In fact, a few lobbyists have bragged they are able to pick the winning candidate in the race to fill a midterm opening. Some lawmakers even say privately that lobbyists will go so far as to recruit candidates for these contests - which they then help win.
And all of that alleged wheeling and dealing is done away from the public eye with absolutely no disclosure whatsoever. Lobbyists still get to run amok in these elections and nobody is the wiser. As they say time is money, and donated time from a lobbyist is as good as cash in the bank for a candidate.
Given the extreme focus on the misdeeds of former Attorney General John Swallow, it’s shocking that the House decided to keep information from those who would be making the decisions in these midterm vacancies. It’s clear lobbyists did not want any more scrutiny on their activities than they already have.
If you listen to the floor debate, and you really should, you’ll notice that opponents of the bill, led by Rep. Dan McCay (R-Riverton), tried every tactic in the book to run out the clock before finally killing the measure. Amendment after amendment, excessive questioning - all tactics that Rep. Mike Noel, House sponsor of the measure, said felt like a filibuster.
It was transparency vs. obscurity, and obscurity won.
McCay spent a good portion of the debate over SB97 clutching his pearls, expressing horror that lobbyists might have that much control over who wins and loses in those elections. It’s interesting to note that McCay himself was appointed to his seat in January of 2012. Did he get help from lobbyists during his candidacy? We will never know because they don’t have to disclose donated time.
Rep. Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville) said it was absurd to single out lobbyists for more disclosure, saying delegates would be able to make an “informed decision” in these special elections and pick the right candidate.
Didn’t the delegates have a hand in picking John Swallow? That was hardly an informed decision.
Others who voted against more disclosure said they had no evidence this was happening. Unfortunately, there’s too much smoke for there not to be some fire here. Maintaing the status quo is not acceptable - yet that’s what the House opted to do.
For his part, Weiler was still stinging from the defeat. He says it boils down to an issue of transparency and integrity.
“I’ve rarely seen a legislative body say ‘Let’s do the wrong thing,’ but that’s what happened here,” he says. “How can you trust the delegates to do the right thing when you are withholding information from them?”
Lawmakers are usually gung-ho for reform until they realize it may affect their behavior as well. It took years for them to put reasonable limits on gifts from lobbyists. This session they had a chance to enact some meaningful reform - limits on campaign contributions for example. Most of those fell by the wayside.
The problem with lobbyists attempting to game the system creates the appearance of a quid pro quo. Maybe none exists, but perception is reality, especially in politics.
Then there’s this. From pages 9-10 of the final report from the John Swallow investigation:
It is a central tenet of open and fair elections that voters should have available to them information that discloses the sources of a candidate’s financial support. Indeed, the Legislature enacted legislation in 2009 and again in 2012 to assure precisely such transparency in State elections. Whether, in 2012, the voters of Utah wanted to elect an Attorney General who received significant financial support from the payday lending industry should have been a decision made by the voters of Utah armed with full knowledge of the sources from which Mr. Swallow had raised his campaign funds. The Committee concludes that this information was intentionally hidden from Utah’s voters by Mr. Swallow and his campaign, and that the spirit, if not the letter, of Utah’s campaign financing laws was violated by these deliberately nontransparent activities.
Too bad the House didn’t take that call for transparency to heart. Sure they might have made it a little tougher on the lobbyists, but the electorate and process would have benefitted.
In the end, Utahns are left to wonder if lawmakers are doing the business of the people, or the bidding of the well-connected few.