EDITORIAL: Aurora campaign reform bill a victory for better elections

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It’s safe to assume that for most, possibly all, Aurora voters, it’s unwelcome news that the 2021 election season is now officially underway.

We feel your pain.

It may seem cold comfort now, but the good news is that a proposed, dramatic change in Aurora campaign finance laws will make next year’s city council election markedly more transparent.

The bad news is, new transparency, accountability and limits on campaign donations also bring serious complexity.

In the end, we think the voters and candidates alike come out winners in the process.

Limiting campaign donations and ensuring voters know who’s behind political spending has been the holy grail of political-reform activists for generations. Elected officials are generally averse to impose campaign finance restrictions on themselves. Aurora is no exception.

The wisdom behind restricting how much people, businesses and associations can donate to a political campaign is apparent. Money gets people elected in Aurora and across America. The more money you can move into a candidate’s campaign, the more likely it is that candidate will be there for their big donors. It’s no secret that campaign donations buy political influence and in many instances, loyalty.

Businesses, unions and the rich wouldn’t keep donating billions of dollars each year to political campaigns if there wasn’t a substantial return on their investment.

Colorado has a mixed record of success on limiting donations and ensuring the public knows where election money is coming from. That’s because the bulk of the laws come from lawmakers themselves.

In 2006, Colorado voters initiated and passed Amendment 41, by far the most comprehensive and meaningful laws focusing on political reform, created by an end-run on lawmakers themselves. Dealing mostly with ethics, lobbyists and graft, the measure didn’t directly address campaign donations.

It’s a void in state law yet to be filled. In Aurora, however, the problem seems to be solved.

Councilmembers Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano have helped craft a comprehensive and detailed campaign finance reform package that vastly limits individual contributions, especially from associations and businesses.

“This seems, on its face, to be a very dry and unexciting topic,” Marcano said during the bill’s introduction. “But every single thing that people who live in Aurora care about relates directly back to campaign finance.”

He’s right. City council races are heavily influenced by police unions, developers, homebuilders, indirect political party donations and a variety of deep-pocket industries.

The new measure addresses the problem by limiting single donations, from individuals, businesses or associations, to $400 for ward candidates and $1,000 for mayoral and at-large races.

We disagree with the argument that city-wide races demand higher limits because the campaigns must reach a larger group of potential voters. The pool of potential donors grows with the size of the electorate. The case for $400 limits is compelling no matter what kind of a race is fought. The disparity between races was needed for buy-in from some council members for the entire bill.

Most importantly, this bill creates a new and detailed plan to not only hold candidates and their campaigns accountable to the new limits and laws, it makes campaign finance transparent and easily accessible by the public.

We disagree with critics who say that the measure is in any way partisan, despite heavy influence in the bill’s creation by traditionally liberal expert groups that have long lobbied for such reforms. Every candidate and campaign, liberal or conservative, must abide by the same rules. Liberal labor unions and industries are under the same limits as conservative developers and police unions.

Because the measure is so comprehensive, dealing with reporting, dark money, political advertising and more, it’s complicated.

Success will come from helping candidates and the public easily navigate new regulations, as well as ensuring that the city will police the rules, rather than leave that to interested activists.

With next year’s city council election now underway, it’s critical candidates and public see draft regulations and plans within a few weeks, not a few months.