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Legislative leadership is bought and sold on the Hill

Jul 23, 2010 (Kim Burningham Salt Lake Tribune)

The best leadership results when people of high integrity demonstrate an impressive example of skill. Followers are eager to have such people take the lead. Unfortunately, in many instances leadership instead has been bought by favoritism, family relationships and money.

The Utah Legislature has had all kinds of leaders. Some of these rose to the top through excellence. Others have risen to the top by other means. When such is the case, the people pay the real price.

One former speaker of the Utah House, Greg Curtis, served in that position for two terms using strategic placement of money to assure election.

Curtis amassed a bank account in excess of $300,000 largely contributed by lobbyists. According to Bob Bernick Jr. in the Deseret News (Jan. 8, 2008) Curtis “gave much of his campaign donations to fellow GOP house members…hopefully, endearing them to vote for him as speaker one more time.”

Sen. Sheldon Killpack was a leader in the Utah Senate before his resignation was prompted by a drunken driving charge. Many expected that he would run for a leadership position again. He gathered nearly $200,000 in contributions, coming heavily from lobbyists. As the 2008 election approached, Killpack contributed to many fellow senators or candidates who were up for election including $5,000 to Dan Liljenquist; $5,000 to Steve Urquhart, $3,000 to Mark Madsen, $5,000 to David Hinkins, $5,000 to Carlton Christensen, $3,000 to Alan Christensen, $10,000 to Carlene Walker, and $5,000 to Scott Jenkins. Alliances cemented by money have become commonplace in the Utah Legislature.

House Speaker David Clark intends to run again for speaker. May that explain why Clark is currently giving donations of money to potential Republican members who will later vote for their leader? Or is he simply generous? (In any event, he’s not spending his money; it comes from lobbyists and special interests.)

Even before the primaries were held, Clark had started peddling dollars to potential members of the House. Clark’s June 15 financial report indicates that since the first of the year, he has received more than $120,000, the majority from special interest groups. He has contributed between $1,000 and $3,000 to at least a dozen other men who were running for office.

The candidates were located throughout the state from Logan to Murray and from Draper to Kanab. Most of them have never served before, and for some reason Clark was eager to help them get elected.

Some recipients cover the bases. They accept donations from legislators who may end up vying against one another in election competitions. For example, Kenneth Ivory, who is running for office in the West Jordan area, accepted a $3,000 contribution from Clark, but also accepted a smaller contribution of $250 from “Friends of Carl Wimmer.” Wimmer has been mentioned as a potential challenger to Clark.

Verifying all the giving that has taken place from potential leaders to legislative candidates is not yet possible. Wimmer, for instance, reports zero campaign expenses or contributions. Although most legislators did file a report of campaign expenditures due on June 15, several others (usually highly visible legislators like Wimmer) report no campaign expenditures.

I doubt those reports are true. Likely they are accepting contributions or sharing money through political action committees. Such committees are not required to submit reports with the same frequency as candidates. This may be a deliberate effort to circumvent the current campaign reporting law.

Because of the Utah legislative session’s brevity, and also because the leadership assigns legislators to committee membership, legislative leaders control much of what happens in the Legislature. Where lobbyists supply money, and leaders use that money to increase influence, much power is transferred to a few leaders and the lobbyists who influence them.

Leadership candidates dismiss suggestions about “purchasing votes” by arguing that they are friends helping friends. Perhaps. However, the insidious nature of these transactions is that the recipients of leader largesse then are hooked — they dare not cross the givers of money, lest the spigot be turned off.

“Party discipline” comes at a real price to the public interest, especially where donors’ private agendas come up for a floor vote. Curtis made a very public show of absenting himself from discussions about a deal involving the St. George airport which stood to earn a good deal of money for his employer. He didn’t have to be in the room; everyone knew what he wanted — and the price of opposing him.

The current system is just another conduit for lobbyist money to control the process. (Note: The statistics cited in this article are all registered on the public web sites. See .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Go to the tab, “Public Search” and browse under “Candidates and Office Holders.”)

Contributions from one legislator to another cited above are not illegal under current Utah law. The law needs changing. The safest approach would be to prohibit such exchanges of money. The Utahns for Ethical Government initiative petition does precisely that. If would-be leaders want to help their friends, they should do so from their own wallets, not somebody else’s.

Leadership should be earned by capable performance, not purchased.

Kim Burningham is a former member of the Utah Legislature, chairman of the Utah Board of Education and chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government.