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GOP complaint against Polis for letter sent with refund checks likely to be dismissed

Governor referred to payments as ‘Colorado Cashback,’ not TABOR returns
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference Oct. 28 in Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

The Secretary of State’s Office is moving to dismiss a campaign finance complaint against Gov. Jared Polis related to a letter his office included with TABOR refund checks set to Coloradans this summer.

The head of the Colorado GOP, Kristi Burton Brown, accused Polis of illegal electioneering, claiming the letter was a thinly veiled pitch for his re-election, paid for by taxpayers. At the heart of her complaint was Polis’ rebranding of the refunds, required under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, as “Colorado Cashback” and using that term in his letter.

“This letter blatantly misleads voters by refusing to say the word ‘TABOR’ or ‘Taxpayer Bill of Rights.’ Instead, the Governor uses his own campaign language of ‘Colorado Cashback,’ a phrase he coined during his campaign for re-election,” Burton Brown wrote in the complaint.

However, investigators in the Elections Division found the term originated in the governor’s press office and was used to announce his effort – supported by state lawmakers – to move up the date of the refund payouts. Based on its continued use by Democratic lawmakers and the governor in his official capacity, they determined the phrase was not the product of his campaign.

The investigation concluded that Burton Brown “illustrated how Respondent Governor Polis did not embrace or use the term TABOR in association with ... the refund checks but presented no evidence that ‘Colorado Cashback’ is campaign language, a campaign slogan, or a term that was coined by Respondent Candidate during his campaign, as alleged in the Complaint.”

The motion to dismiss is now in the hands of the deputy secretary of state, who has 35 days to rule on it.

The governor has long maintained the letter was a necessary communication to help convince voters their refund checks were genuine and not a scam. Lawmakers defended the use of the term “Colorado Cashback” as a way to help the public understand and identify the refunds.

In a statement, Burton Brown described the move to dismiss her complaint as politically motivated and charged that, “The fact remains that Jared Polis and the Democrats are pretending to support TABOR in a tough election year just to buy votes.”

Republicans voted to speed up the refunds but have complained all along that Democrats, who in the past have complained TABOR refunds starve education and other programs of needed funding, are being hypocritical in their embrace of the checks this year.

Those familiar with campaign finance law were skeptical from the start that the GOP complaint would gain any traction. Attorney Mario Nicolais, who primarily represents Republicans, dismissed the letter as the kind of “politics as usual” election year effort that disillusions voters, but said it hadn’t crossed the legal line.

“I think that there’s a difference between, ‘Has he violated a law?’ or ‘Has he done something that seems a little cynical, but not unlawful?’” Nicolais said.

CPR’s Bente Birkeland contributed to this story.

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.