By Alex Burness
Those seeking to limit the influence of money in Colorado politics can only do so much.
Reformers would love to limit campaign expenditures, for example, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can’t impose any mandatory limits on how much candidates and outside groups spend, nor can they change the fact that tax-exempt “527” political groups and independent expenditure committees can accept virtually unlimited contributions and conceal much about where their money comes from.
That’s how, in 2018, Colorado ended up with a governor who dropped more than $23 million in personal cash on his race, and saw its most heated ballot issue, Prop. 112, drown in a 50-to-1 spending deluge by oil and gas industry interests over anti-fracking activists. It’s how nearly a quarter of a billion dollars was spent overall on the past election, shattering the previous state record.
But while reformers are relatively powerless to stop big money, campaign finance experts say there’s significant opportunity to increase transparency in elections, so that citizens can at least be better informed about who’s trying to tip the scales.
Colorado’s new secretary of state, Democrat Jena Griswold, says campaign finance transparency is one of her primary focuses. She spoke on that and other priorities during a presentation to state legislators last week.
“We can’t have our voices drowned out by massive secret political spending. Coloradans deserve to know who is trying to influence their vote and how they are trying to do it,” Griswold said. “We must bring transparency to the millions and millions of dollars used to influence our elections.”
Political action committees in Colorado can buy up ads and mailers without ever disclosing where their money comes from, as long as they don’t explicitly advocate for a particular candidate or position. Many groups exploit this loophole to attack or promote certain candidates and ideas while keeping their donor bases secret. The Colorado Sun recently highlighted more than $600,000 in spending on commercials condemning Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton that never mentioned there was an election coming up or endorsed his opponent. Where the money came from remains a mystery.
Of course, Griswold can’t advance her policy goals on that front without the cooperation of the Legislature. But, unlike in recent years, there’s no split at the Capitol; Democrats now control state government, and campaign finance reform measures previously shot down are beginning to re-emerge as lawmakers take aim at a system that allows unlimited spending with limited accountability.
Colorado is highly regarded as one of the easiest states in the nation in which to register and to vote. But Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance watchdog at Common Cause – the same outfit from which Griswold just poached her new deputy, Jenny Flanagan – says Colorado is just “middle of the pack” with regard to campaign finance transparency.
“There’s certainly room for improvement,” Ryan said. “There’s lots of potential, on firm constitutional footing, to shine light, to require disclosure of who’s raising and spending money to influence not only elections but lobbying-related disclosure, for example.”
Griswold identified a series of ways she believes the state can improve transparency:
“Require disclosure of secret political spending”“Expand the ‘paid for by’ disclosure requirements on political advertisements”“Exercise the secretary of state’s audit and enforcement power to act on campaign finance, ballot access and lobbyist violations”“Prevent potential candidates from raising millions of dollars in unchecked and uncapped contributions into ‘independent’ committees designed to support them when they officially declare their candidacy” (That’s something Jeb Bush famously did prior to the 2016 presidential election.)“Ensure that independent expenditure and other committees can be held accountable for campaign finance violations”“Work to end the influence of powerful interest groups and lobbyists over candidates and elected officials through contributions to political entities”Democrats, with their newfound power, say they plan to take the reins this session on campaign finance reform. Already, Rep. Emily Sirota of Denver has filed a bill to limit campaign contributions in county races to $1,250 per person in the primary and general elections – that bill just passed out of committee – and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada has teamed with Aurora Rep. Mike Weissman and Centennial Republican Rep. Jack Tate on a bill to expand disclosure rules regarding electioneering communications. Both those efforts are revivals of legislation previously killed under a split Legislature.
“I expect that you’ll see more legislation on this from the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate,” Weissman said, “because we do believe it’s a priority. Voters of all parties, and no party, have said they’re tired of the influence of money – particularly money that can’t be traced or is hard to trace – in politics.”
Added Sirota, “Among our constituents, among voters, there is certainly suspicion about the corrupting influences of money in politics. ... I think there’s an appetite among a number of members to do more to show voters, at a minimum, some transparency to preserve the integrity of our electoral system.”
The Colorado Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs and engages with Coloradans – about public policy, politics, government and issues that matter in our square, swing state.