Several weeks ago I read that one in five campaign dollars went for personal purposes. The article mentioned a lawmaker using campaign funds to take his family to the circus. Bad idea! What the headline didn’t say was that instances of actual misuse of campaign funds were fairly rare. In order to come up with one in five dollars, the reporter also included as potentially improper: repayments of loans to campaigns, charitable contributions, and contributions to other candidates.
That is misleading. Other than just a few, the expenditures decried in the article were legal and above-board. We can argue about whether they should all be legal, but it is a stretch to lump legitimate expenses together with misuse. Ironically, reporters bemoan how few donations come from concerned citizens, yet articles exaggerating the facts like this one further discourage individuals from contributing!
Each March we encounter an article asking “How Effective is my Legislator?” It grades lawmakers based on how many bills we pass. That analysis equates an “Italian-American Heritage Month” declaration to a comprehensive retirement reform bill that was years in the making. But what about defeating bills? Isn’t that also important?
Last week I worked with fellow committee members to reject a problematic tax bill presented to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. This bill had the distinction of being rejected by both the Utah Taxpayers Association and the Utah Education Association.
This session, my bills focus on education funding, tax policy, and election law. Even if we don’t get any of them passed, we’ll get the conversation started. Then we'll have a chance for further study in the interim and action next year or a future session. So be forewarned: using number of bills passed as the (irrelevant) measure of success, I may get an F. One final overreach: every February the Deseret News reports that 20-25 percent of all the bills that session represent an “apparent conflict of interest.” In order to paint with such a broad brush, the reporter compares the profession of the bill’s sponsor to the subject of the bill.
If they seem to be related, the bill is an “apparent conflict.” So when an insurance agent sponsors a bill about insurance, that counts as an ‘apparent conflict of interest.’ If a contractor wants a building code change, that must be a conflict, too.
A conflict of interest means you or your business stands to benefit from the legislation. That’s serious. But when we need a bill on medical matters, why would we not turn to someone in the medical profession? Yes, it is possible that such a sponsor could benefit, but you cannot say there is “apparent conflict” unless there is at least some evidence of personal financial gain.
This whole concept is such a stretch that in one of the recent annual installments, the author invented the term “good conflict,” thereby acknowledging the notion that expertise in a field may actually make legislation better. Well, of course, it’s good. But it’s not conflict. It’s a benefit.
The common thread in these examples is that news reports — in spite of best efforts to the contrary — sometimes miss the mark. Thanks to the Clipper for a forum showing another point of view. Thanks also to those who become involved enough to see through the haze and find out what’s really happening. And voters, if you hear or read something in the media that doesn’t quite seem to add up, please ask your public officials directly.
Jim Neilson is an architect and small-business owner. He represents most of Bountiful and a small portion of Woods Cross.