Don’t Get Me Started, Regulars and Shorts

Don’t Get Me Started

By John deJong

Utah’s health(don’t)care system.
by John deJong

The other day a friend asked me whether I thought Greg Hughes, the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, was politically motivated in his refusal to let the Utah House consider accepting $944 million of federal aid for Medicaid. LOL, politicians playing politics in Utah? Not since Orrin Hatch’s last politically motivated attack against Democrats for playing politics.

Last winter the Utah Senate passed Governor Herbert’s Healthy Utah alternative Medicaid expansion plan, matching $944 million of federal money with $36 million of state money. But Hughes has refused to play along, saying it would be a waste of the House of Representatives’ time.

My friend thought it might be an ideologically based Tea Party-driven anti-Obama­care stance. Moderate Repub­licans have been besieged at the conventions and primaries by far-right challengers hoping to take advantage of Utah’s solidly Republican super-majority to get them into office. Hughes comes from disgraced Representative and Attorney General John Swallow’s old House District 51 in Draper, a hotbed of hotheads.

Looking through Hughes’ campaign finance records, I was expecting to find contributions with the Koch brothers’ fingerprints on them. What I found was even more sickening, in a “you’ve got cancer” way.

Utah elections are flooded with a tsunami of special interest money of every kind. As Salt Lake Tribune reporter Lee Davidson documented in January 2015, special interest money has over-topped citizen contributions like the Fukushima tsunami did the seawalls of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, making politics in America a radioactive mess. Democracy may never recover.

You can argue ideology, but you can’t argue with money.

The US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United, that corporations are citizens and entitled to the benefits of free speech, fatally breached the seawalls protecting our democracy from special interests. A corporation, after all, is the epitome of a special interest, but with really deep pockets. It would be one thing if all this money were serving the interests of democracy, making elections fairer, more informative and less strident, but it isn’t. It’s gotten to the point where individual donations make up a tiny fraction of the money politicians raise. Why even put out a donation jar at your rallies if you can get $500, $1,000, even $5,000 just by hitting up special interests for “protection money”?

During the last legislative session, Greg Hughes declined to allow the Utah House of Representatives to consider Healthy Utah on the grounds that “I don’t want a topic to become political pageantry and we’re just going to hear it to hear it.”

Hughes may be right about the House “just going to hear it to hear it.” The campaign finance reports are absolutely lousy with contributions from the healthcare “industry.” Hardly a member on either side of the aisle has not received campaign contributions from the hugely profitable pharmaceutical companies, healthcare industry and health insurance companies, that stand to see their gravy train end if medical care in America is redirected from profit -based to care-based.

Hughes forgot that pageantry is an important part of the work of the legislature. Legislative hearings are a place for people without a voice in the political process to be heard by their representatives. If the Governor and the Utah Senate and 67% of Utahns thought Healthy Utah is worth considering, the House should at least give it a hearing.

Hughes may be right to shield his less steadfast colleagues in the Utah House from the type of input he was subjected to this summer when Hughes was told by fellow House member Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful that a health-challenged woman Hughes had met in March had died of cancer. Hughes, to his credit, seemed upset and retreated to his office.

The vast majority of this special-interest money goes to the leadership of the Utah Senate and House—house majority leader, the whip, Senate president, Senate majority leader and the Senate whip, and important committee chairs—so the average elected official isn’t as beholden to special interests as leadership.

In the last two years, Hughes raised $34,200 from special interests connected with healthcare out of a total of $153,572. That’s 22.2% of his take.

House majority leader James Dunnigan accepted $30,950 from healthcare-related special interests out of $119,900, or 25.8%.

Francis Gibson, the Majority Whip, received $11,950 out of $52,025. That’s 22.9%.

So, you can see why Hughes might think the Utah House was ill-disposed towards anything that would make healthcare fairer and more affordable.

Things are just a little better in the Senate where the top three officials raised $58,350 from the healthcare industry out of $323,628 (a mere 18%). Those numbers may not seem like much compared to the gross revenues or even net profit of the health care industry but in a little podunk state like Utah, they’ve got the legislative leadership wrapped around their little fingers.

Hughes revealed one of the most undemocratic aspects of politics-as-usual-in-Utah when he continued, “We feel like we have delved into this thoroughly,” referring to several Republican caucus meetings. Critics have attacked the closed Republican legislative caucuses because the course of legislation is determined in private, away from the eyes of the media and, more important, the voting public.

A case could be made for requiring our elected representatives to foreswear their party allegiances when they take office. They are, after all, representatives of all of their constituents—not just the special interests who funded their election, or the people who voted for them, or even the party they belong to.

Maybe the path to reform is to shine a light on all the “access” large corporations are buying. What would happen if our elected representatives had to disclose every contact they had with lobbyists and campaign contributors? Imagine being able to see that an elected representative had met repeatedly with lobbyists for special interests before a committee meeting where an important topic was to be considered. Would you think the interests of everyday citizens were being slighted and that the special interests were being given a huge advantage?

That’s the way Greg Hughes is playing the game in post-Citizens United America.

Seeking favor

Why else contribute to unopposed politicians?

The strangest part, or the most revelatory, is the amounts of money candidates who run unopposed are able to raise from special interests seeking their favor. During the 2014 election cycle, 11 senators and representatives ran un-opposed and in the process made easy skating look like tough sledding.

James Dunnigan, Rep., H39, House Majority Leader started the 2014 election cycle with $82,218 of leftover campaign funds from the previous year. He raised $144,918 in 2014, $52,800 of which was raised after the general election, in which the unopposed Dunnigan won with 5,683 votes. He spent only $53,621 of that, which comes out to a little less than $9.43 per vote. With $91,296 in the bank at the end of the 2014 election cycle, and another $58,700 raised in 2015, Dunnigan could be a legislator for life.

Francis Gibson, Republican from House district 65, Majority Whip, raised $68,826 in a fiercely fought race against an empty ballot, spending $11.83 per vote for the 5,817 votes he received. If you’re looking for evidence that Utah’s convention-centered nominating system is broken, the $1,500 Gibson spent for poinsettias for delegates to the Repub­lican convention to be held six months later should suffice.

Mike Noel, a Republican from Kanab, raised $21,581 in 2014 in an unopposed cliff-hanger race receiving 8,049 votes. Noel is the chairman of the House Rules committee which, by assigning bills to various committees, or not assigning a bill to a committee, determines the ultimate fate of bills in the House.

Val Peterson, Republican from House district 59 raised $28,353 in 2014 as well as $5,950 in 2015 to fund his electoral fight against no one. Peterson received 4,961 votes but spent only $2,352, so he has $26,000.67 left. He ran unopposed in 2012 and with that kind of free speech sitting in the bank you can bet he’ll run unopposed in 2016.

For a long time I have been aware of the power of many small political gifts. For decades the Utah Beverage PAC has doled out modest amounts of campaign contributions to insure that Utah never even considers a beverage container recycling law.

The game has changed. In 2014 the Utah Beverage PAC crossed politicians’ hands with silver to the tune of $16,000. That may not seem like much but, the average House candidate spends about that much to get elected. Of course, Utah Beverage PAC doesn’t own a whole politician, it owns a little bit of a bunch of politicians.The sickening part is that those funds now flow to the leadership that controls the legislature’s agenda. In a way, it’s a more efficient type of democracy. They have fewer contributions to report to the Lieutenant Governor—oh, as of May 12, 2015, “corporations are not required to report expenditures made to an entity that is required to report on this website (e.g., a corporation is not required to report an expenditure made to a legislative candidate because legislative candidates are required to file reports with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office).” That’s the word from the Lieutenant Governor’s office. Let me tell you it makes following the money considerably harder.

This article was originally published on December 2, 2015.