A Colorado Republican legislator is gathering support from Democrats on a bill one GOP leader calls “sinister” and others say has the potential to bankrupt the party.
That Republican, state Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, defended his House Bill 1046 Tuesday in the House Committee on State, Veterans, & Military Affairs, of which he is a member, saying it would prohibit political parties from from preventing delegates or alternates from voting in caucuses or party assemblies unless they cough up what are commonly known as ‘badge fees.’
The committee unanimously approved the bill, which Democratic state Rep. Susan Lontine co-sponsored, passing it on to the full House.
In addition to Williams among Republicans, the bill drew support from Republican state Reps. Stephen Humphrey of Eaton and Janice Rich of Grand Junction.
For years, Colorado Republicans have arrived to county, state and other district assemblies with their checkbooks in hand because the GOP charges fees - ranging from a few bucks to $70 per assembly - to serve as delegates and alternates.
Only Republican delegates and alternates are hit with the fees, however. Democrats use money from party donors instead.
Those fees can add up for Republicans in El Paso County because they can be elected as a delegate to multiple assemblies, from legislative, judicial and congressional districts to county and state assemblies.
And Republicans must pay up before they’re allowed to vote at the assemblies, which crowd calendars in even-numbered statewide election years, said Cassandra Sebastian, spokeswoman for the El Paso County Republican Party.
Williams compares the fees to poll taxes and says political parties in Colorado shouldn’t be allowed to require payment in order to participate in the political process. It’s common for total fees to exceed $100 for a single person, he said.
“That’s a lot of money. Especially with people who are retired, on disabilities or are poor, living paycheck to paycheck,” Williams said. “The right to vote is sacred and we should be removing all barriers. There should not be this pay to play mechanism that prevents people without money from having a say.”
But El Paso County Republicans say the fees rarely, if ever, prevent anyone from voting and warn Williams’ bill has the potential to bankrupt the county party.
“This would be cutting us off at the kneecap and really hurting us instead of solving a problem,” Sebastian said.
El Paso County resident Kathryn Porter told the committee she was “completely denied credentialing” at her county assembly because she couldn’t afford the fees required for delegates.
Other delegates came to her rescue and covered the fees, she said. But she's not comfortable accepting that way in the future.
“This is more than a poll tax. The Colorado Republican party at the state level and at the county level in El Paso County can be more accurately described as a political mafia who demand tribute from subjects in order to participate in the electoral process,” Porter said.
Several others also testified in favor of Williams’ bill Tuesday, including Martha Tierney, the attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party.
But two people, both chairs of county Republican parties, spoke against the bill.
The first, Eric Stone, of Teller County, said in the past four years not a single person in the county has been unable to pay the badge fees. All the same, there is an internal mechanism in place to cover the costs should someone be unable to pay, he said.
The second, Joe Webb, of Jefferson County, said eliminating the fees would inevitably damage grassroots political efforts. He noted that the bill required parties to inform delegates and alternates that they are not required to pay the fees.
“That’s like any one of us going to a restaurant tonight, getting a nice meal, but then the restaurant comes out and says ‘Whoops, you don’t have to pay,’” Webb said. “Anyone here would be willing to take advantage of that.”
But Williams refuted that claim, saying most Republicans will remain willing to pay. He reminded his fellow party members that “the Democrats have figured it out” and they don’t charge the fees.
And while many say the bill could hurt Republican parties, Williams said it’s actually meant to save them by revitalizing the voter base and broadening participation and rejecting tactics long used by “insider country club Republicans.”
Williams’ bill caught state GOP Chair Jeff Hays, a former chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, off guard.
“This affects me and my teammates across the Republican Party organization,” Hays said. “It impacts us profoundly and we were not consulted on this. It’s the way he’s going about this that’s particularly disconcerting.”
It’s possible the bill could bankrupt the state GOP or county parties, said Eli Bremer, former chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, with whom Williams served as vice chair.
“This was done with completely sinister intentions,” Bremer said. “He knows what he’s doing and what he’s doing is trying to destroy the party.”
“This is probably one of the top worst pieces of legislation I’ve seen run by a Republican,” he said. “If this passes with only Democratic support, it’ll be unlikely he’s not recalled over this.”
But Williams insists his bill is meant to prevent the imposition of a poll tax and he’s quick to flaunt the support it’s garnered from Democrats.
“At the end of the day you can’t prohibit someone if they can’t pay,” he said. “You can still charge fees to cover costs or minimize costs, but you can’t prohibit people who are poor and who can’t pay from participating.”
Lontine, D-Denver, agreed and anticipated fellow Democrats easily supporting the bill.
“Dave and I disagree about a lot of things, but we agree that this is inherently unfair,” Lontine said. “You shouldn’t have to pay to participate. ... That’s not fair or right.”
Lontine also acknowledged that Williams is swimming against the Republican current here.
“He’s gone out on a big limb here. And his is a big 'ol limb,” she said. “Sometimes you have to buck your own party.”
Those costs are substantial, Sebastian said. On even years, about 1,500 delegates - a conservative estimate - pay badge fees in El Paso County. That money, adding up to roughly $55,000, is spent directly on hosting caucuses and assemblies, she said.
“And there’s not a lot of leftover soup afterwards,” she said. “The bowl is pretty much empty, if not overdrawn.”
To put that figure into perspective, each year the county party hopes to raise an average of $180,000, Sebastian said.
Rarely there are those who wish to serve as delegates or alternates who can’t pay the fees, Sebastian said. But those costs are generally covered by other party members.
The trouble is that major parties’ assemblies and caucuses are mandated by the state, but unfunded, Sebastian said. So each party must find its own way to pay for the events. And renting spaces for hundreds or thousands of Republicans isn’t cheap. Plus those events must be staffed and wired for audio or video, among other things, she said.
The same is true at the state level, Hays said, though he said he couldn’t recall how much a typical state assembly costs or how much the party collects in badge fees during election years.
“These costs have to be paid for,” he said. “You can’t just hold these out in a field.”
Republicans pay their own way, Hays said, and Williams’ bill represents the antithesis of tat party ideal.
Democrats take a different approach.
Electra Johnson, chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said regular party donors fund the events rather than the delegates and alternates themselves.
In addition, Lontine said Democrats routinely pass the hat at meetings.
“We think that it’s really, really important to include as many voices as possible and not put up barriers that would limit people from choosing their candidates,” Johnson said. “Anything like that could be seen as a way of infringing on someone’s vote. It’s incredibly limiting.”
“The first time I heard that I was absolutely astonished that they pay to play,” she said. “Participation is what you want. It’s not an exclusive club.”
But that attitude is grating to Hays.
“The assumption that other donors would pay for it is socialism and not congruent with Republican principles,” he said. “Having other people pay for your stuff is not how Republicans think about things.”
Sebastian said the fees also serve as a form of buy-in for delegates and alternates, requiring an added level of investment in the party.
Certainly other Republican Party groups across the state also charge the fees. But Laureen Gutierrez, chair of the Mesa County Republican Party said nobody’s caught off guard by the fees.
“People know that coming in,” Gutierrez said. “It does help defray the costs.”
Gutierrez said she was unfamiliar with Williams’ bill, however.
But not all Republican Party groups are cut from the same cloth. Some do support Williams’ bill.
When the state party announced it would charge fees, Weld County Republican Party Chair Stacey Kjeldgaard said she thought it was ridiculous and could discourage some from participating.
Her own county party doesn’t charge, Kjeldgaard said.
“You’d get the ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t afford it,’” she said. “As a county party we try to be proactive and get as many people interested as we can.”
“We try to go into the election season at least with enough money in the coffers to cover all of that,” she added.
Without existing infrastructure like that in Weld County, however, it would only take a small percentage of Republican delegates and alternates avoiding the fees to cause problems in other GOP parties, Bremer said.
The risk is bankruptcy, Bremer said. And the loss of conservative influence throughout the state.
“Especially in an era where you have insurgent campaigns. They can run delegates and basically bankrupt the party,” he said. “You run the risk that if the party fails to hold a legally compliant assembly, then the party candidates will not gain ballot access.”
Hays said the disagreements within the GOP should be resolved internally rather than imposed upon the party - a private organization, he stresses - by the Democratic-dominated Legislature.