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Colorado Senate panel votes to reform much-abused campaign law

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An oft-criticized feature of Colorado’s campaign-finance law that has been manipulated for years to sling mud and take cheap shots at candidates and political groups is on the verge of reform.

The Colorado Senate’s State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee voted unanimously today to send House Bill 1155 to the full Senate for consideration after no one showed up to testify against the measure, and lawmakers of both parties attested to its need based on their personal experience.

At issue is a campaign-finance policy that, according to a recent report in Reason magazine, invites abuse 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, the magazine argued. Politicians and their operatives looking to game the system file pretextual actions over minor clerical errors in the campaign disclosures of opposing candidates and other entities covered by the campaign law. The actions 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.

As amended in the House, where it was previously approved, HB 1155 would tweak Amendment 27, enacted by voters in 2002, in a way that conforms to what arguably were voters’ sensibilities all along. It would allow candidates and other political entities a 15-day grace period to fix any error after being notified of a complaint. No penalty would be assessed so long as the entity 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.

That key change presumably eliminates a lot of the incentive for all those political attacks masquerading as complaints. It also provides greater incentive for earnest compliance, says Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert, because those who made honest, minor mistakes will be given a chance to fix them without penalty.

The legislation has the endorsement of both conservative Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams and left-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch’s Senior Counsel Peg Perl. 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. When Gardner presented the bill in committee this afternoon and spoke of its aim — curbing “gotchas” — he drew nods of assent from the committee’s Democrats, as well. They included Sen. Lois Court, of Denver, who acknowledged how easy it is for minor, clerical errors — like omitting the occupation of a donor — to go unnoticed in pages upon pages of spreadsheets that campaigns use to record their contributors.

Just before the measure went to a vote, state Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, observed the current campaign law has gone too far by relying on citizen enforcement. It is having a chilling effect on political participation because it opens the door to harassment, he suggested.

“(It) put the burden of proof back on people who just want to get involved in their government,” Hill said.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the committee room at today’s hearing was in fact a no-show. Republican gadfly and political operative Matt Arnold — whose business, Campaign Integrity Watchdog LLC, has filed more campaign-finance complaints than anyone else under the state law since it was enacted — had testified vociferously against HB 1155 a few weeks ago when it was heard before a House committee.

The Reason article and other critics of the status quo had pointed to Arnold as the poster child for reform. According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office website, Arnold and Campaign Integrity Watchdog have filed 67 complaints under since early 2014, and he has 10 active cases currently pending.

(One of those active cases is a complaint Arnold has filed against a nonprofit advocacy group for which this blogger did some consulting work before returning to the news business last year. I recently was subpoenaed to testify in that case before an administrative law judge. You can read more about that here, here and here.)




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