Salt Lake City council ignores citizens on campaign finance reform

December 19, 2015
Tom Huckin

The amount of money in American elections is at an all-time high.  In 2012 more than $2 Billion was spent on Congressional campaigns alone, and this year will no doubt set a new record.  Most of this money is coming from big corporations, unions, and super-rich individuals.  A 2014 study by economists Gilens and Page found that, as a result, ordinary voters have virtually zero influence on public policy. The US public is well aware of its impotence.  Polls show that some 84% of Americans believe their voices don’t count and that there is too much money in election campaigns.
              Much of this undemocratic situation is due to the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded 2010 Citizens United declaration that campaign contributions are a form of “speech” protected by the First Amendment and that corporations (considered legal “persons”) are entitled to First Amendment rights. 
              Although the problem of Big Money corrupting democracy is especially acute at federal and state levels, it can occur at local levels as well.  Many towns and cities across the USA have taken steps to minimize that risk, mainly by limiting the size and source of campaign contributions.  Boston, Tucson, and San Francisco, for example, limit individual donations to council or mayoral races to $500;  Seattle and Oakland have a $700 limit;  San Antonio and San Diego have $500 and $1000 limits for council and mayoral races, respectively.  In some cities only real persons, not corporations or other artificial entities, may contribute.
              By contrast, Salt Lake City’s limits have long been $1500 for council races and $7500 for mayoral races – among the highest in the nation.  And there is no ban on corporate contributions.
             To remedy this, a grassroots group called Move to Amend (MTA) conducted a petition drive in 2012 in which over 100 volunteers gathered signatures from more than 11,000 citizens agreeing that “money is not speech” and “corporations are not people.” When city attorneys belatedly discovered a state law blocking such initiatives from going on the ballot, the City Council arranged to have an “Opinion Question” mailed to every registered voter in the city.   It asked citizens if they agreed or disagreed with the two propositions mentioned above.  19,607 Salt Lakers responded with 88% saying “Yes.” 
              This overwhelming show of support for true democracy led the Council to issue a City Resolution in favor of overturning the Citizens United ruling.  Part of that Resolution reads as follows:  “Large campaign contributions in modern American elections give an unfair advantage to such contributors and increase the possibility of corrupting recipients” and it was agreed to by all seven council members.  That was in December 2014.
               Because this Resolution was not legally binding, MTA crafted a draft ordinance designed to reduce the power of Big Money in SLC elections.  Instead of the existing $1500 and $7500 limits for individual contributions to council and mayoral races, respectively, MTA proposed reducing them to $500 and $1000, similar to many other cities.  And it proposed a complete ban on corporate and union money.
               For the past year MTA did everything it could to educate the Council on this issue.  We met with each Council member, sometimes multiple times.  We provided them with research findings about other cities, relevant Supreme Court rulings, SLC campaign finance statistics, etc.   We briefed and received endorsements from both mayoral candidates.  In short, MTA devoted countless hours to this cause.
               But the Council deliberated on the issue largely behind closed doors and, in the end, breezed through discussion in a matter of minutes, ignoring all of our research (and much of their own staff’s), making only token changes to the city’s campaign finance laws.  The new limits will be $750 and $3500 – still among the highest in the land – and big corporations are still allowed to directly peddle their influence.  Despite having formally acknowledged that “Large campaign contributions in modern American elections give an unfair advantage to such contributors and increase the possibility of corrupting recipients,” these same seven Council members, dominated by the two largest recipients of Big Money, sided with wealthy interests and effectively ignored the wishes of 88% of our city’s residents.  It was a bitter defeat for democracy in Salt Lake City.

Groups audience: