It seems that there's been a bit of a stir lately as newspapers have flocked to stories highlighting Utah's somewhat… lenient rules on legislative gift-giving and campaign contributions. For those that don't know, here's the skinny: campaign money can be spent on anything you want and you only have to report, not refuse, gifts over $10 and meals over $50. Think that leaves a lot of leeway? Apparently it does.
Take Greg Curtis for example. He won his Sandy seat in the House by a mere 20 votes in 2006 to eke into position as Speaker of the House. Turns out he got there by taking whatever money came his way. Breweries? Check. Tobacco companies? Check. A beer wholesalers association? Well good gravy, you don't build up a $327,000 war chest by saying no. Seems like just a wee bit much for a man who claims he has no aspirations higher than the $28K/year part-time position. He even went on a $15,000 junket to Philly to visit Comcast for information on telecommunications. Apparently the Salt Lake office is not properly equipped for such a task.
Curtis is only one of the more egregious examples. It seems like most of the legislature could be considered "on the take" as it were. Some of them show a surprising amount of indifference to it all. Aaron Tilton seems to have no shame at all that he has blatant conflicts of interest in his push for nuclear power in our state. Sen. Pat Jones accepted $388 dollars worth of Billy Joel tickets while simultaneously talking up reforming the laws on legislative gifts. It might take less time to list the members not currently selling their votes.
The problem is that lasting reform means that legislators need to bite the hands that feed them. Getting such a thing to pass means we need a minority party willing to push the issue combined with some fresh legislative faces not yet deeply in the pockets of various money groups. Is it possible? Yes, but it'll take time.
It's obvious that banning gifts outright makes a lot of sense. Those Jazz tickets and dinners at top restaurants are insulting distractions from the business of running the state. It should go much further, though: if you can't vote for the candidate, you can't contribute to their campaign. That would effectively eliminate out-of-state campaign funding, wide-spread
bribery donations from large corporations and a decimation of the special interest PACs that crowd out normal constituents. If you don't do business in or live in the district, you have no right to influence that election. Period.
It might seem like an extreme step, but it seems we're at a point where we can't accept anything less than the most stringent of campaign rules. When legislators will openly abuse the public trust, it shows a contempt for what little oversight has been placed upon them. Given the spades of special-interest bill-writing I've personally seen, we should be outright demanding legislators who will aspire to do the right thing over the legal thing.