campaign finance reform Archives - Colorado Politics
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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirDecember 14, 20173min4480

Denver’s attempt to rein in the “dark money” that drives, and sometimes distorts, a lot of campaign messaging has landed the city in court. A lawsuit filed in Denver District Court Wednesday by a public-interest litigation foundation out of Arizona — the libertarian-leaning, Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute — contends that provisions of the campaign-reform ordinance enacted by the Denver City Council in September are unconstitutional.

The suit was filed on behalf of two political-advocacy nonprofits that are a familiar presence on Colorado’s political right — the Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation and the TABOR Committee.

The new Denver campaign law, which has assorted other components not challenged by the suit, takes effect in January.

Calling the targeted provisions of the new law “unfair and unconstitutional,” a Goldwater press statement Wednesday says the measure, “requires nonprofits to give the government a list of their donors — including their occupations and employers — any time those groups spend as little as $500 communicating with voters about city ballot measures.” In other words, it effectively turns advocacy groups like the two plaintiffs into political or issue committees regulated by campaign laws.

The press statement continues:

…By undermining nonprofits’ speech rights, individual privacy is undermined as well.

“Since the 1950s, the Supreme Court has protected donors’ privacy when they contribute to nonprofits, ruling that government officials can’t force advocacy groups to turn over the identities of their supporters to public officials. But Denver’s new ordinance disregards this precedent entirely,” said Goldwater Institute Senior Attorney Matt Miller. “Nonprofits have the right to educate and speak up for what they believe in, and that’s why we’re asking the city of Denver to stop the enforcement of its donor disclosure ordinance.”

Goldwater also quotes the Colorado Union of Taxpayers’ Marty Neilson:

“Putting donors’ names, addresses, employers, and occupations on a government list makes them vulnerable to harassment and intimidation, … Nonprofits should be able to choose whether or not to make their donor lists public in order to persuade people to listen to what they have to say, but that should be their decision to make, not the government.”

The Denver Post reported Wednesday that the Denver Elections Division declined to comment on active litigation.

Goldwater says the Denver law is “the latest in a trend of cities cracking down on nonprofit donors’ First Amendment rights.” Santa Fe, N.M., enacted such a law in 2015, and one is under consideration in Tempe, Ariz.


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Nicky YollickNicky YollickNovember 13, 20174min7830

Over the last several years, a massive influx of funding from individuals and groups outside of Colorado has transformed the school board, restricting parents and teachers from having a reasonable say in which direction the Denver Public Schools board goes. Oftentimes, these organizations prioritize advancing a national “reform” ideology over the needs of Denver’s students. All of this has resulted in a deterioration of our public schools in favor of semi-private options which are not financially feasible for the general populace.


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Ernest LuningErnest LuningSeptember 29, 20177min3470

End Citizens United, a group dedicated to overturning the decision that opened the floodgates to campaign cash, endorsed Democratic congressional candidate Jason Crow on Thursday. At the same time, Crow pledged he won't accept corporate PAC money in his bid to unseat five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirMay 26, 20174min940

Lynn Bartels at the Secretary of State’s Office blogs about an obscure but far-reaching campaign-finance reform signed into law this week by Gov. John Hickenlooper, giving candidates for office “… a chance to correct errors on campaign-finance reports and avoid what could be absurd fines.”

As we’ve noted before, the bipartisan House Bill 1155 aims to curb the abuse of a provision in the state’s campaign-finance rules that relies on the general public to file complaints and prosecute alleged violations by candidates in their periodic finance disclosures to the state. Pols and their operatives looking to manipulate that system file pretextual “gotcha” complaints over trivial, overlooked clerical errors in the campaign disclosures of opposing candidates and groups covered by the campaign law.

Such complaints are often filed at the last possible moment, which runs up the fines and legal fees the targets must fork over. The law has no screening process; all complaints must be turned over without review to the Office of Administrative Courts to sort out.

Bartels explains how HB 1155 would tackle the problem:

Under current law, when elected officials make a mistake, they can incur a $50-a-day fine for each error in a report for up to as many as 180 days. The measure gives candidates 15 days to fix an error after being notified of a complaint.

“It’s encouraging candidates to go ahead and fix those issues,” Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said when she testified in favor of the bill before a House committee in March.

No penalty will be assessed during the grace period 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.

It’s a seemingly simple fix that could cure a big headache. Instead of hauling candidates through protracted and costly court proceedings, they first will be able to hit backspace on minor flaws in their disclosures, filling in the blanks for the public to see. In other words, greater transparency. Which would seem to have been the whole point of Colorado’s sweeping campaign-finance reform adopted by voters in 2002.

As we also noted before, the legislation promises to make it less likely 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. That 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.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirMay 19, 20175min1771

You say it’s already taxing enough just listening to them, not to mention carting their campaign mailers to the recycle bin? OK, but maybe there’s more to it than that, so read on.

What single-payer is to the national health-care debate, publicly funded campaigns long have been to the movement for campaign-finance reform — a touchstone and panacea for the left even if it is an abomination for the right and maybe just counterintuitive for the many apolitical people out there.

It has been implemented in various states and municipalities, generally in places of a more liberal political tilt though there are some exceptions to that rule of thumb.

Now, as Denverite’s politics and government ace Erica Meltzer reports, Denver voters could be asked to consider such a policy. Petitions probably will start circulating within weeks — courtesy of the group Clean Slate Now — to gather enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot. Meltzer reminds us this is actually the second such attempt at a ballot question for publicly funded campaigns in Denver in as many years, but last year’s version was derailed by a court challenge.

The plan is complicated — not nearly so simple, say, as giving candidates government vouchers to pay all or a portion of their campaign expenses — so we’ll borrow Meltzer’s description of the proposal’s key components:

  • It lowers the limit for individual donations to candidates. Right now, the mayor can accept up to $3,000 from a single individual, far more than the $575 that a candidate for governor can accept from an individual. Candidates for other citywide offices like auditor, clerk and record and at-large councilman can take $2,000 and candidates for district council seats can take $1,000. The ordinance would reduce that to $1,000 for mayor, $700 for citywide offices and $400 for district council seats.
  • It defines independent expenditures and adds them to the groups that have to make disclosures to the city.
  • It bans corporations and unions from donating to candidates.
  • It creates an $8 million fund to allow for public financing of elections. Candidates who opt-in to this system would agree to a certain number of public debates and would accept an even lower limit on individual contributions. The fund would match — at a rate of 9-to-1 — the first $50 of each individual contribution, that is, up to $450. There would be a cap on total city funds that would be given to any one candidate — $750,000 for mayor, $250,000 for other citywide offices and $125,000 for district council races. There would be no cap on total spending by candidates, as there is in some cities with public financing.

So, if you’re not up to doing your own taxes or perhaps assembling your kids’ swing set (the kind with a tunnel slide) in the back yard, this probably isn’t for you.

There is much more to this discussion. Naturally, its advocates / enthusiasts feel it has tremendous potential to clean up politics; smirking skeptics say it’ll merely squeeze the balloon and redirect yet more campaign funding underground. And there are even principled objections to it. Meltzer covers it all in much more informative detail. Give her story a read, and here’s the link again.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirMay 12, 20174min972

… 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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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirApril 10, 20176min104
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 […]

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