Campaign financeElection 2018News

Colo. campaign-spending initiative sets signature record

Author: Marianne Goodland - August 6, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018

campaign finance reformFormer state Rep. BJ Nikkel of Loveland and former state Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray show off the record 212,000 petition signatures for initiative #173. Photo courtesy of Stop Buying Our Elections

Signatures for the last of seven measures that proponents hope to make it to the November ballot were turned in to the secretary of state just after 2:30 p.m. Monday.

The last one turned out to be the biggest in terms of petition signatures, with more than 212,000 names — a new state record for a ballot measure.

“Stop Buying Our Elections” is the name attached to ballot Initiative No. 173. Its financial sponsors are unknown, but its named proponents are former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel of Loveland and former state Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray.

Brophy told Colorado Politics that their ballot measure seeks to level the playing field when candidates or their supporters put millions of dollars into campaigns.

In Colorado, two gubernatorial candidates — Republican Victor Mitchell and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis — both put millions of their own fortunes into the primary. Mitchell loaned his campaign nearly $5 million but lost to Republican Walker Stapleton. Polis won the Democratic primary over three other challengers. To date, he has contributed more than $14.1 million to his campaign coffers.

Initiative No. 173 would apply only to statewide candidates: governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer and those running for the Colorado General Assembly. The measure is constitutional because it changes some of the language in the 2002 campaign finance reform measure that became known as Amendment 27.

Amendment 27 came with some of the nation’s lowest contribution caps: $400 per election cycle for the state House and Senate; $1,150 for the other statewide offices.

Initiative No. 173 attempts to help “regular people” compete against millionaire and billionaires when they run for office, Brophy told Colorado Politics.

“If you’re Vic Mitchell and you want to write a check for $5 million, you can do that,” he said. “If you’re a regular guy like me running for office, you get bigfooted. You struggle to raise $150,000 or $200,000 from your friends and neighbors” with the low campaign limits.

The measure works like this, according to Brophy and Nikkel: When a person puts a million dollars or more into a campaign, the campaign limits for everyone else in the same race “go up five times, so you can raise enough money to compete with the millionaire or billionaire trying to buy the election.”

This also would apply to some independent expenditure committees such as Frontier Fairness, which backed former Democratic state Sen. Michael Johnston for governor and took in $2 million in contributions from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Brophy said that a committee that backs a specific candidate and spends $1 million or more in support of that candidate would also be covered under 173.

Why not change the contribution limits instead? Brophy said that most people like the low contribution limits for statewide races such as state House or Senate. Most candidates in those races spend $50,000 or less, Brophy explained.

“We sought a five times increase, which puts us in the range with what is normal for big contributions by regular donors to campaigns,” Brophy said. “Nationwide, the average is in the $3,800 range; if you’re running for U.S. Senate or House, the range is near $5,000.”

Had Initiative 173 been in place for this election cycle, Brophy surmised that Republican primary winner Walker Stapleton might not have had to spend as much of the $773,000 he put into his gubernatorial campaign in the 30 days before the June 26 primary, given that Mitchell had written a $1 million check to his campaign some 16 months earlier.

“If you look at the very first paragraph of (Amendment 27), it talks about large money donors being a corrupting influence,” Nikkel explained. “This measure will help level the playing field to at least allow other people, regular citizens, to come in and try to match up somewhat to the millionaires.”

“These are supposed to be elections, not auctions,” Brophy added.

The measure needs a minimum of 98,492 signatures to be certified for the ballot. The secretary of state has 30 days to review the petitions.

With the last batch of petitions turned in Monday, more than 1.3 million signatures for the seven ballot measures are now under review by the Secretary of State’s Office. And the challengers are already lining up, led out of the gate by those opposed to Initiative No. 97, which creates a 2,500-foot setback for oil and gas drilling activities.

Protect Colorado, which has taken in more than $43 million from the oil and gas industry since 2006, announced Monday afternoon it was readying a challenge to ballot Initiative No. 97.

“We are prepared to challenge the validity of these signatures to ensure that they are accurate, valid and that they were obtained by following all the proper laws, including that the signature gatherers were properly certified to carry petitions,” said former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, an attorney for Protect Colorado.

Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, also issued a statement regarding the ballot proposal. “Should Initiative 97 qualify for the ballot, there will not be an issue that would have a more devastating impact on the statewide ballot this year. This disastrous proposal will negatively impact every Coloradan’s pocketbook, will reduce the quality of life that we value in Colorado, and cost thousands of jobs.”

Colorado Rising, the group backing Initiative No. 97, submitted 170,000 petition signatures Monday in hopes of qualifying for the November ballot.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.