Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Utah's Sorry Campaign Law

The Deseret News lays into the Utah legislature

Excellent editorial in this morning's Deseret News, calling upon the legislature to "demonstrate a commitment to transparent government by changing these (Utah campaign finance disclosure) laws." From the editorial:

We have long been advocates for transparency in elections, rather than tedious and ineffective limits on donations. When laws limit how much someone can contribute to a campaign or how much a candidate can spend, the advantage always goes to the incumbent. In elections, money equals exposure. Information, on the other hand, helps voters enter polling booths fully informed.
But in Utah, the public has neither transparency nor limits.
The Center for Governmental Studies, together with the UCLA Law School, the California Voter Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently ranked states according to how well their campaign disclosure laws inform and protect the public. Utah came in 45th of the 50 states and earned an F grade.
Being the curious type, we navigated to the Campaign Disclosure Project (CDP) website; and yesiree, Utah's campaign disclosure law did indeed score an "F" grade as of the year 2007. According to the CDP site, Utah is in fact one of only six states receiving "failing" grades. That's quite a distinction -- one in which all Utah legislators must take great pride, we're sure.

There's plenty of interesting information on the CDP site, including this Campaign Finance Disclosure Model Law. In the unlikely event that any Utah legislator ever takes heed of the growing public outcry for wholesale campaign finance disclosure reform, we believe this "model law" would be a great "starter template."

We congratulate the Deseret News for for keeping the need for significant campaign disclosure reform in the public discussion forefront. We likewise encourage all Utah media to continue flogging this topic. If all goes well, this issue will rise to the surface during the upcoming 2008 general election campaign, forcing the legislature to finally address it during the 2009 legislative session.


dan s. said...

It's worth quoting the summary of the Utah rating from the campaigndisclosure.org web site:

As in 2005, little has changed about campaign disclosure in Utah and the state again earned an overall F in 2007. Utah had previously earned a D in the web site usability category, but slipped down into the F range with a weaker performance in the 2007 usability test.

Utah law requires candidates to report contributors giving $50 or more, but does not require disclosure of donor occupation or employer data, or cumulative amount donated. Last-minute contributions and independent expenditures are not reported until after Election Day. Expenditure disclosure is stronger, but candidates do not have to report subvendor information. A significant disclosure improvement was enacted in 2007 when the governor signed Senate Bill 246, requiring that officeholders file campaign finance reports annually, rather than once every other year. Electronic filing of disclosure reports is voluntary in Utah, though the State Elections Office reports an impressive 100 percent of statewide candidates, and nearly 80 percent of legislative candidates choose the electronic filing option, up from 75 percent and 40 percent reported in 2005, respectively.

Utah’s Disclosure Content Accessibility ranking slipped in 2007, though the state again earned a D- in this category. The Elections Office posts data from electronically-filed reports online immediately, data-enters records from paper-filed reports within one week, and its searchable database of contributions includes records from both types of filings. Unfortunately, a number of shortcomings noted in previous reports remain: search options are limited; candidates’ complete reports cannot be reviewed online; and users cannot search itemized expenditure records. According to the State Elections Office, a new web site is under development, which the agency hopes will improve the online disclosure system.

A weaker usability test performance dropped Utah from a D to an F in 2007 in the usability category as testers had a more difficult time locating data on the site than in 2005 and expressed less confidence in the accuracy of the data that they did find. While the site does provide an overview of candidate reporting requirements and schedules, there is no information about campaign finance rules and restrictions on the site, and the description of the data available could be enhanced. The site offers a nice overview of the total funds raised and spent by all candidates for each statewide office (and the House and Senate as a whole), but does not provide a breakdown of funds raised and spent by individual candidates for those offices. Providing information about state campaign finance rules and trends would improve the contextual information on the disclosure site.

dan s. said...

Reading the above analysis of Utah's campaign disclosure system, I can't help but notice a huge omission:

County and municipal races are completely exempt from Utah's disclosure requirements.

Now, perhaps this is true in most other states so it goes without saying--or perhaps not. But it's a problem either way.

I suppose that most of the larger counties and municipalities have their own disclosure ordinances, but it's stupid for each entity to do it a little differently and for the data to be kept at the local level where it's too much trouble to put it online. If you want disclosure information for Ogden City races, you have to go down to the city recorder's office and pay 25 cents a page for copies of the forms.

And the local ordinances can have loopholes. Ogden's ordinance purports to ban anonymous contributions, but has a huge loophole that has been interpreted to exempt PAC's from any disclosure whatsoever. So if I want to collect anonymous contributions, all I have to do is set up a PAC and launder the contributions through it. And that's just what Blain Johnson and Royal Eccles did in the city council races last fall. Each received approximately $9,000 in anonymous contributions, laundered through a PAC called "Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate", whose address is the same as that of Johnson's law office.

(Did the Standard-Examiner report any of this? Of course not.)

robbers run free said...

Look you the red states and then the blue states and the blue states have a better grade.

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