Proposed state bill targets campaign dark money hotly debated in local races
The bill takes aim at the flood of negative ads from vaguely named groups
March 5, 2019
Lost last week in the uproar over higher-profile bills such as a proposed “red flag,” gun safety law and tougher oil and gas drilling regulations, a Colorado legislative committee on Thursday quietly approved a campaign finance disclosure bill aimed at daylighting dark money in political races – a heated issue in local ballot battles last fall in Eagle County.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who represents a large swath of the Western Slope at the state Capitol – including Eagle County — voted in favor of SB-068, or the Expand Disclosure Electioneering Communications Act. She complained last year that her Republican opponent enjoyed a flood of anonymous campaign ads despite very little hard cash in his campaign coffers.
The bill would require the listing of any person or group's name that spends more than $1,000 a year on electioneering communications such as TV ads, mailers or flyers at any point between the primary and general election. It passed the full Senate 23-12 last month, cleared the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee by a 6-3 vote on Thursday and heads to the full House floor, Tuesday.
Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser — who also won his race last November despite being substantially outspent by anonymous outside groups funneling campaign cash through the Republican Attorneys General Association — said via a spokesman that he supports SB-068. Weiser told the Vail Daily last fall that combating so-called dark money was one of his top priorities.
In fact, Weiser advocated at the time for a Montana-style campaign disclosure law that's one of the toughest in the nation. Montana's 2015 Disclose Act recently dodged another legal bullet when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case challenging the law.
Who’s behind the attacks?
In Colorado, voters who are sick of being flooded with campaign ads from vaguely named groups, wondering who's behind the onslaught of attacks, will be pleased to see the disclose law likely headed to passage in the Democrat-controlled House. It would then require the signature of Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat.
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"Voters are too often bombarded by political advertisements during elections from unnamed sources, making it difficult for voters of all persuasions to properly weigh the issues," House sponsor Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, said in a release. "Putting stronger disclosure laws on the books would allow Coloradans to have all the proper facts when they fill out their ballots."
SB-068 Senate sponsor Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, also sponsored a bill, HB19-1007, that would limit the amount of campaign contributions for candidates seeking county offices. The bill passed out of committee Monday and is headed to appropriations.
"Fair elections are one of the most important parts of American democracy," Zenzinger said. "Limiting campaign contributions for county offices isn't a red or a blue issue, it is the right thing to do that will protect and uphold our democracy at the local level."
As for her disclosure bill, candidates cannot legally coordinate with outside political groups and may not want the help, but money still pours into key races on both sides of the political aisle — often funding ads that make dubious claims and tend to be overwhelmingly negative.
Dark money the new norm
"The hardest story to tell is there's dark money in every campaign; that's just the nature of where we are after Citizens United," Donovan said during last year's campaign, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission ruling.
Her GOP opponent, Olen Lund, agreed at the time, saying, "I would think transparency is a good thing."
Both candidates expressed their frustration with spending by outside groups, and although Democrats largely outraised and outspent Republicans in Colorado in the last election – a one-sided midterm that favored Dems – much of that money was declared campaign cash with names solidly attached to the contributions.
Outside dark money and super PAC spending evened the playing field somewhat for Republicans last election, but some members of the GOP are still backing SB68, including “yes” votes by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, Dennis Hisey, R-Fountain, Kevin Priola, R-Henderson and Jack Tate, R-Centennial. Expect to see some more GOP support in the House this week.
"SB68 is a major bipartisan step towards more fair and transparent campaign finance laws," said Eagle and Routt counties’ state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who was critical of outside, anonymous spending last election — even though he didn't see a lot of it in his race. "The amount of money that floods into our elections, even at the state and local levels, is troubling.
"Having a disclosure on who is paying for election communications, particularly the negative campaigning, is good for voters and good for our democracy. This bill is a major step forward for transparency in Colorado’s democracy."
Roberts also supports HB1177, an Extreme Risk Protection Order bill sometimes referred to as a “red flag” law. The bill, which has the support of Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, passed the House by a 38-25 margin on Monday. It now heads to the Senate, where it died last year under Republican control.
However, the Senate switched over to Democratic control in November, so it stands a better chance this time around. The law would allow police and family members to petition a judge for an order removing the firearms of an individual deemed a danger to themselves or others.
The U.S. Congress also recently saw rare action on gun safety, with the newly Democrat-controlled House of Representatives recently passing HR8 mandating comprehensive universal background checks for gun sales — something that enjoys widespread popular support. It's unlikely to pass the U.S. Senate.
The first act of the new Dem-controlled House was a dark money and anti-corruption bill called HR1 – the so-called For the People Act of 2019. It had its first hearing last month but has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate or being signed by President Donald Trump if it does.
In Colorado, Donovan's state Senate District 5 has long been at the epicenter of anonymous attack ads, with former Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Crested Butte a key player in a dark-money drama that spilled over into Montana and drew national headlines and documentary crews.