Colorado considering big campaign finance changes
December 15, 2011
DENVER – Colorado’s campaign finance rules are either roadblocks to free speech or necessary to keep big money in check when it comes to campaigns, according to testimony Thursday from supporters and critics of proposed changes.
“Our goal is to create safe-harbor rules so people know what they’re doing,” Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler said at the beginning of public testimony. He is proposing a sweeping rewrite of Colorado’s campaign finance rules, what he calls a simple clarification of state election rules.
His proposals include limiting some campaign-finance fines, raising the cap on donations to certain political groups before they have to report to the state and other changes.
Critics argued that Gessler’s changes would make it easier for deep-pocketed donors to influence elections.
“Our voices would be drowned out by special interests with fat wallets,” said the Rev. Dawn Riley Duval of Denver’s Shorter AME Church.
Other activists said Gessler was trying to clarify campaign-finance rules to make it easier for average folks to participate in politics.
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“They will be helpful for people like me, who are part-time activists, so they don’t lose their shirts in a campaign-finance lawsuit,” said Diana Hsieh, who campaigned last year against an unsuccessful ballot measure that would have banned abortion.
Among the changes would be a new cap on fines for campaign-finance violations. Gessler argued that it was unfair not to set any statute of limitations on a fine, because other areas of the law set maximum fines.
Democratic Sen. John Morse, who testified against Gessler’s changes, argued that setting that cap, which could be as little as $9,000 in total for a single violation, would invite advocacy groups to consider the fines as the cost of doing business. Morse said hefty fines are an important safeguard.
“You have to follow the rules of transparency if you’re going to be involved in the political process and telling people how to vote,” Morse said.
Gessler has also proposed that groups wouldn’t have to report campaign spending on ballot initiatives unless that amount exceeds 30 percent of “the organization’s total spending.” Critics argued that setting a percentage threshold, instead of a numerical cap, would allow corporations to spend millions for or against a ballot measure without oversight, while smaller advocacy groups would have to file reports on lesser sums.
Gessler told one activist he’d consider changing that suggestion, but he pointed out that no amount exists now and he was only trying to suggest a clear guideline.
“I agree with you 100 percent that it treats small organizations and large organizations the same,” Gessler said.
The hearing drew testimony from both political parties, with the state Democratic Party’s lawyer, Martha Tierney, arguing against many of the rule changes.
“The net effect of the rules is to create less disclosure of political activity in the state of Colorado,” Tierney said.
The chairman of the state GOP, Ryan Call, said revising campaign finance rules have “been a long time coming” and that Gessler’s suggestions would make it easier for non-lawyers to participate.
Call said that current rules are “muddy guidelines that invite litigation … or chill speech.”
Residents who couldn’t make Thursday’s hearing have until Dec. 23 to submit comments. After that, Gessler has 180 days to decide whether to change the rules.
If critics don’t like the changes, they would have to sue the secretary of state’s office or suggest new rules.