A newly formed political action committee has started making independent expenditures in the Salt Lake City mayoral contest, and they may not have any limits on how much they can spend.
The billboards, which you can see below, are for Jackie Biskupski's campaign.
"Utahns for Independent Government," the PAC behind the billboards, was registered with Salt Lake City last week. According to filing papers, the PAC is run by Bill and Dewey Reagan, who head up Reagan Outdoor Advertising. The PAC registered with the state on June 30, listing the same address as Reagan Outdoor's Salt Lake City headquarters.
Reagan Outdoor Advertising made a $7,475 in-kind donation to Biskupski's campaign on February 2, 2015. Under Salt Lake City campaign laws, the most they can donate to any one candidate is $7,500, meaning they are effectively maxed out.
Salt Lake City's election laws do not specifically set donation limits to PAC's. The code says "No person shall make contributions during any election cycle, as set forth in this chapter, to any candidate or his or her personal campaign committee, or to any political committee with respect to any election for city office" that exceed the limits of $7,500 for mayoral candidates and $1,500 for city council. The phrase "any political committee" would seem to cover donations to a PAC, but there is no monetary limit specified. A sticky legal wicket indeed.
Cindi Mansell, Salt Lake City Recorder, says this situation has never happened before, so they're entering new territory.
"This is unprecedented for the issue of corporate citizenship to make it down to the municipal level in Utah," she said. "We believe our laws set a limit for donations to these organizations as well as candidates."
Mansell says they consulted with the Lt. Governor's office that regulates PACs. While providing no clear direction on donation limits, they did advise city officials that the existing limits for candidates should apply to PACs. However, since this situation has never happened on the municipal level in Utah, it's not clear what sanctions would exist for organizations that go over the limit. It may take a court battle to decide what is allowed and what is not.
However, there are no laws governing how much the PAC can spend on behalf of a candidate. The only limitation is no coordination is allowed. So, if this PAC chooses to carpet bomb Salt Lake City with billboards for Biskupski (or any other candidate), there's certainly nothing stopping them.
Nate Sechrest, who is listed as the treasurer of Utahns for Independent Government, said in an email statement provided to UtahPolicy.com:
"Utahns for Independent Government was formed to advance and support the interests of commercial and private property owners within the state of Utah. Our goal is to seek out and support legislation, petition efforts and candidates for office at all levels of government supportive of smaller, more responsive government and a government dedicated to reasonable land use regulation."
Sechrest would not say how much they have spent so far, but noted the PAC will "make all required campaign finance disclosures they're required to." That means they'll have to disclose their spending on August 4, one week ahead of the primary election.
There are at least six billboard locations (physical and electronic) that have been reported to UtahPolicy.com.
Maryann Martindale, spokesperson for the Biskupski campaign, says they found out about the billboards when they went up last week.
In a statement to UtahPolicy.com, Biskupski said:
"I was surprised to see the signs this week. Our campaign had no coordination with this PAC or involvement in any decision about their expenditures.
"I believe it makes sense to limit contributions to candidates and PACs, unfortunately, that rests in the hands of the legislature and the majority has not shown an appetite for making that change."
Matt Lyon, a spokesperson for the Becker campaign, says he's not surprised this is happening, given Mayor Becker's position on billboard advertising and the friction between his administration and the industry.
"This marks the entrance of big corporate money into a local race without limitations. We are very concerned about this development because of the precedent it's setting."
Mayor Ralph Becker released the following statement in response to this story being published.
“Throughout my career as a Salt Lake City planning commissioner, a state legislator and mayor, I have opposed the money-driven, special-interest politics of Reagan Billboards, earning that company’s enmity,” stated Mayor Becker. “Against my consistent opposition, Reagan Billboards has garnered and used state legislation to undermine local government decision making.”
“Today, I am calling on Jackie Biskupski to disavow support for this type of outside spending and take the billboards down. Salt Lake City voters overwhelmingly rejected this type of Citizens United-style campaign spending in the Move to Amend effort. Voters strongly reject these secret campaign tactics.”