One reform the Legislature refused to make during the 2014 session will once again be in focus come September.
Sen. John Valentine announced earlier this week he will be stepping down from his seat to become the head of the Utah State Tax Commission. Under Utah’s byzantine electoral rules, Valentine’s successor will be appointed by Republican delegates rather than elected. Furthermore, because the vacancy will happen after August 30, his replacement will hold his seat for two years rather than be on the ballot for this year.
During the 2014 session, Sen. Todd Weiler ran a bill to require lobbyists to report the time they donate to candidates during these midterm vacancies. Right now, since it’s not money, it’s not a donation. But, it’s a huge advantage for any candidate to have the expertise of a lobbyist on their side during the truncated time frame in which delegates fill an empty seat.
SB97 died in the final hours of the 2014 session.
There are 95,000 people in the district currently represented by Valentine. Yet, only a fraction of those people will get a say in who replaces him for the next two years on the Hill. The winning candidate simply has to curry the favor of half the Republican delegates in that area. If you can get a lobbyist or two on your side to help you win, that’s a huge advantage.
The eventual victor will then get to call themselves an incumbent. That label is a tremendous edge when they finally come up for election.
A recent Rasmussen survey found that 68% of Americans think the electoral system is rigged for incumbents. If you win incumbency without being tested first at the polls, it’s a massive advantage when you finally do stand for election.
It’s not hard to see why lawmakers would be loathe to make any change to the way they get elected. 25 of the 104 legislators who were on the hill during the last session were first appointed rather than elected. That’s nearly a quarter of all lawmakers who gained their seat without having to first stand for election. It’s a good bet that lobbyists helped a large number of them navigate the process of getting to the Hill.
Even though it may not be a quid pro quo relationship, that existing relationship between an appointed lawmaker and a lobbyist is something the public has a right to know about. Reporting donated time would be a good start along that path to transparency.
I can hear the Constitutional alarmists saying reporting donated time violates the right to free association and free speech. I understand that. But, the lobbyist occupies a special place in our political system. How can they expect us to differentiate between time they spend as a private citizen and a professional lobbyist? It’s a fine line they dance upon.
In fact there are rumblings in the halls of Utah’s Capitol Hill that lobbyists brag that they can pick the winners in these special delegate elections to fill a midterm opening. They have had plenty of chances to perfect that craft.
Our political system is still reeling from the John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff scandals. It’s too bad lawmakers did nothing to address one part of the process that’s still ripe for abuse.