When Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 27, the epic campaign-finance reform measure on the 2002 statewide ballot, not everyone was impressed.
The measure, among other provisions, imposed strict, low limits on political contributions to candidates for state office. It was supposed to go a long way toward curbing the presumed ill effects of money on Colorado’s political process.
Yet, skeptics — mostly insiders like pols and their consultants — foresaw only headaches for their own campaigns and few if any benefits for politics overall. Big money, they predicted, would continue to find its way in — by other means.
Whatever voters at the time believed the reform would accomplish, it is arguably the skeptics who have been vindicated in the years since its passage. Last November’s general election was awash in a torrent of political spending that reached near-Biblical proportion.
A whole lot of the money was spent on just one race, for governor — by one candidate in particular, the eventual victor, Gov. Jared Polis. Polis was able tap his personal fortune from his days as an internet entrepreneur — unconstrained by campaign-finance laws.
Plenty of 2018’s political giving also was spent on other races and ballot issues — from offstage, by the now-routine assemblage of shadowy independent groups that also are able to function largely beyond the reach of campaign-finance laws.
Not surprisingly, the near-consensus across Colorado’s political spectrum, once again, is that campaign finance is a problem in need of reform. Maybe even more so than was the case before the adoption of Amendment 27 nearly two decades ago.
What kind of reform, though? Inevitably, that’s where the consensus breaks down.
Here we've gathered the insights of eight players in Colorado politics who draw on a wide range of experiences and represent a broad swath of views on the subject. Their recommendations for where to go next span the spectrum, philosophically and practically.
State Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat carrying campaign-reform legislation this session, walks us through some next steps for tightening enforcement and narrowing loopholes. And newly minted Secretary of State Jena Griswold makes a broader call for reform, especially to shed more light on dark money.
Yet, the libertarian Independence Institute’s Amy Cooke and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ Josh Dunn say not so fast. They sound the alarm at what they contend is further — and futile — encroachment on candidates’ First Amendment right to free speech.
Former Denver elections chief Amber McReynolds as well as longtime GOP campaign guru and political sage Dick Wadhams argue that Colorado’s strict individual contribution limits have backfired. Wadhams goes so far as to say Colorado should just scrap the limits altogether, and he cites some authoritative establishment sources in both parties who back him up.
Meanwhile, Denver is blazing a new trail with a sweeping campaign reform adopted by its voters last November. Its provisions include an experiment in publicly funding campaigns that agree to certain fundraising limits. Common Cause of Colorado played a big role in drafting that proposal, and the group’s executive director, Amanda Gonzalez, lays it out for us.
Finally, Greg Brophy, the veteran former state lawmaker and onetime GOP gubernatorial candidate, is among the few who have stepped forward with an attempted counterweight to millionaire candidates who can write a blank check to their own campaigns.
At our request, Brophy recaps a proposal he and fellow former lawmaker B.J. Nikkel had championed on the ballot last fall as Amendment 75. It would have dramatically raised contribution limits for candidates whose opponents spend at last $1 million of their own money.
The measure fell well short on Election Day; Brophy makes the case anew for his novel proposal.
So, what’s next? Do we double down on our current approach in hopes of reining in runaway campaign spending? Or is that, as Dunn puts it, “a fool’s errand” — digging ourselves ever deeper into an unworkable policy? Do we instead scrap that time-honored touchstone — contribution limits? Or, is that just throwing in the towel and surrendering to special interests?
Read on, and let us know what you think; send comments to email@example.com and put "campaign finance reform" in the subject line.