Aspen is ready to raise cap on campaign contributions |

Aspen is ready to raise cap on campaign contributions

Janet Urquhart

Candidates seeking election to the Aspen City Council this May may find fund-raising a little easier, thanks to an increase in the amount they can accept from supporters.

The City Council agreed Monday that the $100 limit per individual contribution, which has been in place since a cap was set in 1989, needs to be raised. City attorney John Worcester suggested the limit be hiked to $250, but the council asked him to analyze a $200 cap instead.

The campaign contribution limits came under review as a result of last fall’s voter approval of runoff elections for mayor and council seats. Worcester has suggested amending the city code to set a contribution limit for both the regular election and a special election. If the cap is $200, supporters would be able to give that sum to a candidate in both the May election and again in a runoff vote.

The existing $100 limit is probably too low to be defensible in court, according to Worcester. A federal district court ruling has narrowed the justification for contribution caps to one consideration – to prevent the potential for corruption or the appearance of corruption, according to Worcester.

“It’s not what it would take to buy off a candidate, but what the public would perceive as the amount it would take to buy off a candidate,” he said. One hundred dollars is likely too low to create that perception, Worcester said.

In 1999, Mayor Rachel Richards received $19,570 in contributions from 325 contributors. About half of them contributed the maximum of $100, according to Worcester’s analysis of past elections.

“That gives you the indication that more people would have given more money if the limit wasn’t artificially low,” Worcester said.

In Richards’ campaign, a $100 contribution constituted .49 percent of the total she spent. A $250 contribution would have been 1.23 percent of her total expenditures in the campaign, according to Worcester.

Also in 1999, a $100 contribution constituted about 3 percent of the total election spending reported by both Councilmen Tony Hershey and Tom McCabe, Worcester noted.

“Does 3 percent of a candidate’s total funds translate into the potential for an appearance of corruption?” wrote Worcester in a memo to the council. “Put more bluntly, can a reasonable person believe that a candidate can be bought off in Aspen if he donates 3 percent of the candidate’s total campaign expenses?”

In that election, $250 would have been about 7.6 percent of the total money spent by Hershey and McCabe, Worcester said.

Hershey initially argued most vehemently for the $250 cap rather than $200, suggesting candidates need the money to put up a worthy fight if they are not the favorites of the media.

“How much is an endorsement from The Aspen Times or the Daily News worth?” he said. “You can fight this liberal media bias via TV and newspaper ads.

“I would take offense to this idea that I could be bought for $250. That’s ridiculous,” Hershey added.

Ultimately, the entire council voted to support an increase in the contribution limit on first reading and directed Worcester to analyze a $200 cap for consideration at second reading.

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