An innocent inquiry?
Or is there a natural inference that the check comes along with a request to support or defeat the proposed legislation?
Except during times when the Utah Legislature is actually in session (it’s illegal for a lawmaker to take a campaign donation at those times), the above can happen on Capitol Hill for much of the year.
And Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, would like to stop the practice.
“I think it is unseemly,” for such an exchange to take place in the Capitol – the main symbol of state government in the Beehive State.
But Valentine, an attorney, is still messing around with the wording of his proposed new rule or law.
In talking with some of his legislative colleagues, Valentine says, he’s begun to wonder if a lobbyist offering a lawmaker a ride from the Hill to a downtown event could be conceived as a “donation,” and thus prevent the offer from being made in the Capitol. Or some other non-cash offers, innocent enough, could incorrectly be banned.
Still, while some may see the check-passing event as minor, others don’t.
In fact, this reporter personally witnessed an interesting exchange just before the start of an open House GOP caucus last fall.
A well-known lobbyist walked up to a leading GOP legislator whispered something in his ear and gave him an envelope.
It contained a $500 check for the lawmaker’s re-election campaign.
This reporter thought the transaction may be illegal, and inquired from a legislative attorney if donations were prohibited on Capitol Hill.
The answer is no. A lawmaker can’t accept a campaign donation during the 45-day general session, nor during any special session or veto override session, the attorney said.
But checks can be delivered personally, or by mail, to a legislator or his Capitol Hill office any other time, including regularly-scheduled interim days – as this was.
Such is not the case in Washington, D.C., considered by many Utahns (even many Utah lawmakers) as the den of iniquity where politics and lobbying is concerned.
Congressmen and women can’t solicit or accept any campaign donations from within U.S. Capitol facilities.
It’s well known that many lawmakers keep offices (or their political parties do) right off of the U.S. Capitol grounds. And the federal lawmakers go into these offices to make donation solicitation calls many times during the year – with an eye toward special buzzers or TV channels which tell the congressmen they are being called to important floor or committee votes.
“I don’t personally like the practice of receiving campaign checks on (Utah’s) Capitol Hill,” said Valentine, who is the new Senate Rules Committee chairman for the next two years.
“Alone I can’t make such a rule as chairman,” he said.
Whatever he decides to pursue will have to be passed either by the Senate (if it is a Senate rule) or by the Senate and House (if it is a joint rule or a law.)
And it is not just the Legislature that may be concerned.
I recall a conversation I had with former Gov. Norm Bangerter many years ago. Bangerter was a bit amused when – after a close victory over his Democratic challenger in 1988 – several well-known business leaders came up to his office with pre-dated checks (made out with a date before the November election) telling him that they had meant to get him the campaign donations before the election, but just forgot or got too busy.
Now that he had won a second term, they were trying to make it look like they were financially supporting him all along, when in reality they were just waiting to see if he was going to win or not. Bangerter got a kick out of their shame-faced conversions.
In any case, the donations were being made inside the governor’s office (all perfectly legal).
“I don’t think it is a very healthy environment” for campaign donations to be given inside the Capitol, said Valentine.
“Others may disagree.”
But Valentine said giving and receiving a campaign donation in the very place where laws are made could give the giver, a lobbyist or someone else who wants something from the Legislature, and the receiver, the lawmaker, the uncomfortable feeling that more than just financial support is being considered.
“I’d like to have a proposal to deal with this,” said Valentine, in the 2013 Legislature, which starts a week from Monday.
“But there are some things I still need to work through – there could be some unintended consequences” in trying to ban campaign contributions changing hands in the Utah State Capitol.