Dueling plans for local campaign finance reform seek to limit rising costs of election

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With few limitations on campaign contributions, money has poured into high-profile elections for Aurora mayor and city council over that past few cycles. 

Now, lawmakers are entertaining two dueling proposals to reduce moneyed  influence in municipal races. Mayor Mike Coffman said last week his own fundraising as a 2019 mayoral candidate — in what became a more than $1 million race —  would’ve been dampened by his own proposal. Councilmembers Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano introduced a sprawling reform last month imposing sharper limits on contributions and a demanding finance disclosure schedule.

City lawmakers will ponder the plans, and the future of Aurora’s elections, in the coming weeks. Both proposals earned early OKs from a city council committee. Johnston and Marcano’s plan will debut in a council study session Oct. 5. 

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

Expensive races

Currently, Aurora imposes no limits on donors’ checks to candidates. People running for office and political-minded committees involved in the election have to report their spending and contributions, including the name and address of a person who gives more than $20. 

The disclosures are due on a regular schedule, or violators face a $50-per-day fine. Residents can look up candidates and committees on the city’s website to glean at least some information about the money. 

In recent election cycles, individuals and so-called dark money contributors all over the country have flooded municipal races with money. City lawmakers also say the stakes have become higher as council members take up policy decisions on housing developments and oil and gas production but also police reform and oversight of an immigration detention facility.  Donors now work with candidates, or work alone, to influence the public even on gun control and reproductive rights issues, which are usually the purview of state and federal governments. 

In 2019, a razor-thin race for mayor was the most expensive in city history, breaking the $1 million fundraising mark nearly a month before Election Day. 

Now-Mayor Mike Coffman took in $50,000 during just one finance disclosure period two weeks before the election. His largest contributions included $5,000 from Denver-based oil and gas operator Benson Mineral Group. Denver housing development mogul Larry Mizel also contributed $2,500. 

Two weeks before the election, former mayoral candidate Omar Montgomery received $1,000 from a Denver labor union, Laborers Local 720, and another $1,000 from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a reproductive rights group. The Sierra Club, an environmental organization, donated almost $90,000 to various council candidates. 

In the run-up to Election Day, city council races also saw an influx of cash from political organizations and dark money groups, which aren’t required to list much identifying information or disclose their funding. 

Notably, the Colorado Taxpayers Advocate Fund funneled about $400,000 into another organization, Neighbors for Aurora. That group contributed the dollars mostly to Republican candidates for city council. 

Coffman, Marcano and Johnston all agree that campaign spending is out of control. 

They say Aurorans also need more transparency in elections, so voters can suss out exactly who is donating to whom and ensure their lawmakers aren’t beholden to moneyed interests. 

Coffman’s proposal 

Coffman, who represented Aurora in Congress for a decade until 2018, introduced his own plan last week to the management and finance committee. 

If city lawmakers approve the plan, donors would be limited to giving a total of $1,000 to any candidate for mayor or an at-large seat on the city council and $500 to ward candidates. 

Coffman said last week the limits are low enough that donors wouldn’t set up shadowy organizations to funnel money into elections. 

“When the limits are too low, what happens is, you are just exporting these campaigns to outside groups,” he said. “So, I chose really realistic amounts.”

Coffman also aims to prevent any corporation, partnership, association and labor union from directly giving dollars.  

He said he would have raised “considerably less” during his 2019 bid for mayor if his proposed guidelines were in place. 

If donors spent too much money on a candidate, the city clerk would refer the matter to the city’s election commission. It’s a five-member board whose members are appointed by the city council. That board would then decide whether the donor or candidate broke the city’s campaign finance rules. 

Fines for violations would be $50 for each day a violation occurred — the status quo — but $100 after the election commission found a rule was broken. 

Johnston and Marcano’s plan

The two lawmakers are opting for deeper limits on donors, higher penalties for offenders and an oversight process that is separate from city government. They said Coffman’s plan isn’t detailed nor expansive enough to make serious change. 

Coffman did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the competing proposal.

 If Johnston and Marcano’s plan becomes law, corporations, business entities and political groups would have to register with the city and set up a special entity to contribute money and resources or donate directly to a candidate.  

The plan was originally crafted by Dale Nichols, an Aurora resident affiliated with Democratic lawmakers and activists. 

Marcano said Coffman’s proposal would essentially keep the status quo, especially by allowing a committee donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to give illegal donations and eat the $100-per day fine for a week or two. 

Marcano called that fee a “drop in the bucket” for big donors. 

Originally, Marcano said his proposal would have limited committees and individual donors to spending $320 on any candidate. After hearing concerns from colleagues, they’ve revised that cap to $800 for at-large and mayoral races and $400 for any ward race. 

Violation fees could also be higher than under Coffman’s plan. Three or more violations would result in a $500-per-day fee. That cost, imposed by the city clerk, would be $1,000-per-day if the violation was found to be done “knowingly.” 

Plus, any person found to intentionally skirt requirements or conceal the true source of a donation could be slapped with a fine of $10,000 or three times the value of the contribution, whatever is greater.

The council-appointed election commission wouldn’t be tasked with ferreting out violators — a process that would suddenly have very high stakes. Johnston said Coffman’s arrangement would present a blatant conflict of interest for the commission members; city lawmakers could appoint members who are beholden to them and infuse the process with politics, she said. 

Rather, the city clerk would refer matters to a third-party hearing officer retained by the city. 

The proposal would also require much stricter campaign finance reporting guidelines and align Aurora with state and federal election rules, the two lawmakers said. 

Johnston said the plan is complex, but the city would make rules easy-to-read for prospective candidates. 

“It shouldn’t be a reason not to vote or support it because it’s lengthy,” she said. 

The two campaign finance proposals will snake through the lawmaking process next month. 

Curtis Gardner, a member of the management and finance committee who gave first approval to both of the plans, said last week lawmakers will have to decide between the two or reconcile them. 

“They’re gonna need to be resolved,” he said.