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Colorado candidates could get a chance to fix campaign-finance oversights …

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… before getting slapped with stiff fines over innocent clerical errors in the periodic disclosures they must file with the state. That’s provided the governor OKs House Bill 1155 following its adoption earlier this week by the legislature.

Perhaps of even greater consequence, the legislation will make it less likely that Colorado’s strict campaign-finance rules will be gamed as they now are by political operatives who use the system to sling mud and take cheap shots at rival candidates and political groups. Which could translate to fewer of those glossy campaign mailers accusing candidates of “running a dark-money campaign” and “breaking the law” — when in fact a campaign volunteer who had logged a $75 donation simply forgot to include the contributor’s occupation.

At issue is an obscure aspect of state campaign-finance law that, according to a report earlier this year in the national magazine Reason, invites abuse. Critics say that’s in part because it relies for its enforcement on complaints filed by private citizens rather than investigations by state elections authorities. That opens the door to mischief. Politicians and their operatives looking to manipulate the system file pretextual actions over trivial clerical errors in the campaign disclosures of opposing candidates and other entities covered by the campaign law. Such complaints are often filed at the last possible moment; that runs up the meter on the fines — not to mention legal fees — that the targets must fork over. The law has no screening process for such complaints, Reason points out. And all complaints must be turned over, without review, to the Office of Administrative Courts to sort out.

HB 1155 would reform the system to give candidates and other political entities a 15-day grace period to correct any error after being notified of a complaint. No penalty would be assessed so long as it is demonstrated to the satisfaction of an administrative law judge that a good-faith effort had been made to comply with disclosure requirements in the first place or that substantial compliance had occurred.

The change promises to eliminate a lot of the incentive for all those political attacks you see masquerading as campaign complaints. Supporters of the bill, including the Secretary of State’s Office, which testified in support, say it also provides greater incentive for candidate compliance because those who made honest, minor mistakes will be given a chance to fix them without penalty.

The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dan Thurlow of Grand Junction in the House and Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs in the Senate, are both Republicans, but the measure picked up broad, bipartisan support en route to passing both chambers. When the bill was heard in committee, lawmakers in both parties weighed in with their own anecdotes of their campaigns getting tripped up over innocent, technical infractions of campaign rules. Indeed, even the sponsors themselves had been targets of complaints filed by political adversaries over just such inconsequential errors.

HB 1155’s premise seems to be that sometimes even watershed reforms, like Colorado’s campaign-finance law adopted by voters in 2002, could use a little reform themselves. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed.

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