Crow Coffman election communications fliers mailers

A sampling of the 25 campaign mailers on the Mike Coffman-Jason Crow race received by one 6th Congressional District family in Centennial ahead of 2018's election day.

A first step toward tightening some of Colorado's laws around campaign communications, which stalled two years ago in the state Senate, is now out of the Senate and on its way to the House.

Senate Bill 68 is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada and Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, and backed by 19 bipartisan cosponsors.

The bill covers "electioneering communications" referring to a candidate, including TV ads, mailers and fliers.

It cleared the Senate Tuesday on a 23-12 bipartisan vote, with four Republican “yes” votes.

The bill would shut the door on a loophole for communications delivered between a primary election and 60 days before the general election.

As things stand now, state law requires that communications sent out by candidates and campaign committees during certain periods clearly identify the candidate and who paid for the communications -- that's the "paid for by" line you see on TV ads or on mailers or social media.

Current law also requires that communications about a candidate disclose who paid for it and whether the candidate is supported or opposed. This information is contained in campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State's TRACER system.

But these rules now apply only to the 30 days before a primary election and the 60 days before a general election; they do not apply to the roughly three-month period in between.

Senate Bill 68 seeks to close that gap by requiring that communications costing more than $1,000 must disclose who paid for it. It would cover anything paid for 30 days before the primary through the November election.

In addition, under the measure, the communication itself must include the name of the person or entity that paid for it. The only exclusion would be for items like bumper stickers or buttons, because they are too small to include that information.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold backs the bill, and told the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Jan. 30 that “now is the time to strengthen our state’s campaign finance laws.”

This bill is a step in the right direction, she said, “and will help us combat secret political spending on negative and misleading advertising and help voters have more confidence” in their elected officials.

“Current law allows secretive groups to spend dark money with the intent to influence an election without disclosing their spending between the end of the primary and 60 days prior to the general election," Griswold said. "This bill closes that gap. We need to ensure interest groups are playing by a better set of rules. ... This bill helps us move closer to our state’s urgent need for campaign finance reform.”

The primary-general election gap arose after lawmakers moved the state's primary from August to June, beginning in 2016. “That created a window on the ‘paid for’ disclaimers,” Zenzinger told the committee.

Political committees took advantage almost immediately after that change in law. The first of these secretive mailers surfaced late in the 2016 election season, when the Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins reported on a series of mailers that lacked the “paid for by” disclosure information. The mailers, The Indy reported, looked similar to those paid for by the Republican-controlled Senate Majority Fund.

Zenzinger was one of four Democratic candidates targeted in those mailers. She sponsored a bill in the 2017 session to close the gap, but the measure died in the Republican-controlled Senate state affairs committee. 

The bill drew no opposition in its Jan. 30 hearing.

Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora will marshal the bill through the House.

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