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House gives nod to dark money campaign disclosure bill debated in local races

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March 3, 2019, 7:39 am

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.

Kerry Donovan
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail

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 (pdf), 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, told RealVail.com 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.

In Colorado, voters 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.

“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.”

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.

“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 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 County 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 late Friday on a voice vote. It 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.

Congress also recently saw rare action on gun safety, with the newly Democrat-controlled House of Representatives last week 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.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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