Proposal to limit school board campaign cash likely doomed

There once was a time–you know it’s true–when school board candidates in Colorado hoped to raise enough money for yard signs and a flyer to hand out or leave at doors.

Times have changed. In the most recent race for the Denver school board, money was flowing as if there were no limits on what someone could give a candidate. Because there were no limits.

An individual can only give $2500 to a candidate for president or congress. A person can only give $525 to a candidate for governor and $200 to a candidate for the legislature. Those limits are doubled if there is a primary election.

For school board candidates in Colorado, there is no such limit. Someone could give millions of dollars to a candidate if they wanted to. That will change if a bill (HB 12-1067) introduced by a trio of Democrats passes. The odds of that, though, are slim to none.

House co-sponsor Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, noted bluntly that the bill does not seem to have bipartisan support and probably will not make it out of the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“We don’t have bipartisan support. It does not seem that Republicans are going to support it even though it is not a partisan issue in my mind,” McCann told The Colorado Independent.

Co-sponsor Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, laughed when asked what the bill’s chances of making it out of committee were. She then noted that even if it made it out of committee, it would probably not get a single Republican vote on the floor of the House.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lois Court speaks about the bill at a rally on the Capitol steps last week. (Kersgaard)

Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, who sits on the committee, said unequivocally that he would vote against the bill. “I just feel that if someone wants to give a lot of money to a campaign, that’s fine.”

Kerr said the problem with campaign finance is not individuals giving lots of money to a campaign, but rather 527 committees that can raise and spend as much money as they want without candidates even knowing where the money is coming from.

“527’s create an unfair advantage against someone who spends their whole life in public service,” he said, adding that often 527 money gets spent late in a race when a candidate has no chance to defend him or herself and when disclosures of who gave the money come too late to make any difference.

527s, so named for their place in the tax code, can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political races, so long as they don’t expressly call for the election of a specific candidate or party. Hence, they tend to spend their money on negative ads focused on the candidate they oppose, without actually saying who they want you to vote for.

Kerr also said school board races are non-partisan, which means candidates don’t get money from political parties and can’t take advantage of political party fundraising expertise and infrastructure.

Kerr added that he doesn’t think there should be contribution limits on any other political campaigns either.

Court acknowledged that the question of limited contributions to school board candidates really is a philosophical question, and that the legislature can do nothing about 527s, which are authorized under federal law.

“Should we allow unlimited contributions, but require disclosure? Or should we place limits on contributions? Should we combine limits with some form of public financing?” she asked.

Court said the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case would seem to preclude any chance of meaningful public financing.

“The Court decided that money is speech and that corporations are human beings, so there we are,” she said.

Court said the public wants limits. She said average people, parents for instance, want to be able to run for school board and compete on the basis of their ideas.

“Transparency isn’t what people want. They want less money, less ads, especially less negative ads. Most people don’t know what a 527 is, they are just sick of the negative ads,” Court said.

She said the recent Denver mayoral race pitting Chris Romer against Michael Hancock was won by Hancock as much because people didn’t like the negative ads targeting him as because of his positions on issues. “And, to be fair to Chris, a bunch of those ads were from 527s.

“As long as people have an image of politicians as being bought and paid for, then we don’t have a real democracy anymore. We don’t have the ideal that we strive for. I teach American government (at Red Rocks Community College and Denver Community College) and I want students to believe in the system but they won’t as long as they think it is all about money,” Court said.

And, how about that Denver School Board race that Court, McCann and Senate sponsor Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, point to as the inspiration for this bill?

In those races, three candidates each received donations of $26,000, $25,000 and $10,000. Two of those candidates–Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe–won, while the third, Draper Carson, lost by less than 1 percent to incumbent Arturo Jimenez.

The people giving the money were well-known businessmen turned educators Daniel Ritchie (DU chancellor)and CU President Bruce Benson along with energy executive Henry Gordon.

One of the losing candidates, Emily Sirota, said the amounts of money spent in the election “absolutely made a difference.”

She said her opponent, Anne Rowe, had a lot of money right from the beginning of the campaign and was able to “inundate voters with materials.

“The amount of money spent in these races really erodes the integrity of the democratic process. What it means is that school board seats can be bought by the highest bidder,” Sirota said.

Sirota raised about half as much money as Rowe, a lot of that coming late in the race when national media attention to the money being spent on the race inspired people all over the country to send her money. Her biggest donor, though, was a small donor committee of teachers, which gave about $40,000. Under this bill, such committees would be limited to a $5000 contribution. Sirota said she would be fine with that.

“Limits should be across the board,” she said. Rowe did not return an email seeking comment.

Sirota said no one gives $25,000 or more to a school board candidate without having an agenda. “They aren’t just giving that kind of money out of the goodness of their heart. There is an agenda there,” she said.

Senate sponsor Aguilar said the bill was in response to the recent Denver school board race, which she termed “the most expensive in Colorado history.

“School board seats are traditionally held by parents and average citizens. We have turned them into something sold to the highest bidder.”

She and Court said school board races weren’t made part of Colorado’s campaign finance limits in the past simply because they were under the radar, never attracting big money donors. “It was never an issue before, but education today has become very political and people are tired of feeling that elections can be bought and sold,” Aguilar said.

Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said his group has not taken a position on the bill.

“We did watch with great concern the Denver School Board race last year, in which candidates for three School Board seats spent over $600,000, and so-called “independent” groups added to that total. We’ve entered a new era where big money isn’t limited to federal or even state elections – we’re starting to see it at the local level as well. Voters in these high-priced local elections have every reason to fear that they are just becoming bystanders in battles between well-funded interest groups.”

The bill will be heard in committee Thursday, and that will probably be the end of it. It places the same limits on Regional Transportation District board seats.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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