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Unlimited candidate fundraising, spending in municipal elections could be a thing of the past

Bill sponsors want to level the playing field
Carol Porter drops off her ballot in a collection box outside the Denver Elections Division for the city's election on April 4 in downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

This year could be the last of unlimited fundraising and spending by candidates in municipal elections if a bill approved last week by the House also passes the Senate and is signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis.

House Bill 1245 would limit individual donations to municipal candidates to $400, while small-donor committees would be able give up to $4,000. Political parties would be banned from contributing directly to candidates in municipal elections, which are supposed to be nonpartisan.

The measure originally limited contributions to $250 and $2,500, but was amended to increase the amounts.

The limits in the latest version of the bill are close to what statehouse candidates may accept – their maximum went up to $450 this year because of inflation. But they are considerably lower than the $2,500 maximum school board members may accept from individual donors and political parties under a bill passed last year.

“This bill will go a long way in ensuring that wealthy donors, special interests and everyday people all have the same level of influence on municipal elections,” said Rep. Jenny Willford, a Northglenn Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill.

House Bill 1245 would apply to any city that isn’t a home-rule municipality with donation limits already in law, according to Rep. Jennifer Parenti, an Erie Democrat and another lead sponsor of the bill. A home-rule city with higher campaign donation limits in law wouldn’t have to lower their amounts if the bill passes.

For instance, two of Colorado’s biggest home-rule cities, Denver and Aurora, already have such rules. In Denver this year, candidates may accept up to $500 from an individual if they participate in the city’s Fair Elections Fund that matches small contributions and $1,000 if they don’t. In Aurora, at-large council and mayoral candidates may accept up to $1,000 per donor, although council candidates running to represent individual wards may only take $400.

The new municipal limits, if approved by the Legislature, would be quite a change for some cities.

Colorado Springs, for instance, has no campaign donation limits for municipal races. Some mayoral candidates in the city this year received donations in the tens – or even hundreds – of thousands of dollars from individuals or political action committees.

One example: Colorado Springs Forward PAC donated $250,000 to City Councilman Wayne Williams’ campaign in February.

The bill also requires more transparency around municipal campaign finance reports by setting new reporting deadlines in state law and mandating that filings be open to public inspection. Candidates and clerks in municipalities with populations of fewer than 10,000 would have fewer requirements.

The city of Colorado Springs, the Colorado Municipal League and the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado are lobbying against the bill.

“This bill wasn’t written with input from municipal clerks and, as a result, it places additional and unnecessary burdens on small town clerks, many of whom are already overburdened as is,” said Heather Stauffer, legislative advocacy manager for the Colorado Municipal League.

Willford said she amended the bill in the House to try to address the Colorado Municipal League’s concerns.

Colorado Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of Colorado are lobbying in support of the measure.

The bill passed the House earlier this month on a 48-12, party-line vote with five representatives excused. It hasn’t been scheduled for a committee hearing in the Senate yet.

The lead sponsors of the bill in the Senate are Democratic Sens. Kevin Priola and Robert Rodriguez. If the legislation passes, it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.