Our View: Finding a middle ground

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Editorial Board, Sept. 25, 2011, to January 2012

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter

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A Steamboat Springs man’s run-in with Colorado campaign finance reporting laws is evidence that the system needs to change, but not to the dangerous degree proposed by Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

Colorado law stipulates that political candidates and campaign committees that miss filing deadlines be fined $50 per day. Those fines and associated costs continue to mount in perpetuity until they’re paid, with no maximum penalty.

For David Smith, a local Republican whose short-lived 2010 campaign for Routt County sheriff ended with the GOP primary, those fines total $108,050 for his failure to file campaign finance reports in 2010 and 2011, according to a recent Denver Post article. Smith didn’t accept any campaign contributions during his brief candidacy, and he hasn’t sought any other political office since. He has filed for a waiver of the hefty fine, and we anticipate it will be granted — and rightfully so.

Gessler, citing examples like Smith, is proposing a change to the rule that would cap fines for missing campaign filing deadlines at $9,000. The cap would be across the board, meaning it would apply to the largest state-level campaigns and the smallest town-level candidates.

Count us among the critics of Gessler’s proposal. There is a fundamental public interest and democratic right to know who is contributing to political campaigns at any level, and we fear that a $9,000 cap would simply encourage deep-pocketed candidates, campaign committees and groups like 527s to pay a relatively small fine instead of having to file timely reports and identify their contributors.

If the problem is a fine structure that ends up unfairly victimizing small-time candidates like Smith, then why not propose a new structure that’s equitable for everyone? Perhaps the secretary of state should consider a scenario with a minimum fine to ensure compliance and a maximum fine equivalent to the total of the funds raised by the particular candidate or campaign committee. Such a system might at least put all candidates and committees on equal footing without allowing those who more easily can afford it to simply skirt the intention of the filing rules.

Comments

Scott Ford 2 years, 8 months ago

Hi Yampa Valley Boy - There are a host of issues that you and I have differing points of view. However, on this one I am in agreement with you. I am not sure we have reached the point of no return. However, we are headed in that direction at a dangerous pace.

I think only a Constitutional Amendment is the answer. That will only happen once it is concluded that the campaign financing system is so broken and corrupted that it is beyond repair and that the results of the current system is creating an America nobody wants.

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sedgemo 2 years, 8 months ago

Scott, I think we are already there. How many years have we heard national candidates rail about campaign finance reform? Newt (back when he was married to wife no.1) and the Contract come to mind...

In light of the abysmal slate of candidates running for our highest office I may not vote for the first time ever. The people who might actually help turn this country around remain invisible and not willing or able to suck enough money from everywhere to mount a viable campaign. It's hard to imagine why any decent person would want to entertain joining such a bizarre self-perpetuating sideshow.

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mtroach 2 years, 8 months ago

The problem then becomes how to vote in anyone who would change the system. Anyone who could get elected isn't going to change the system that got him elected.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 8 months ago

The trouble with limiting contributions is that individual people will always have the right to speak out on political issues. So if the money cannot be given to the candidates campaign committee then supporters will on their own just spend what they want on supporting the candidate.

This year's Republican primaries have been interesting because with so many "debates" then everyone is getting lots of free exposure. So campaigns have been able to operate with virtually no funds. But that has not been enough to win as it appears the PAC ads supporting (or opposing) a candidate have also affected the results.

The part that is wrong and could be corrected is that PACs and Super PACs do not have a free speech right to keep contributors secret. That comes from other laws that allows corporations to have secret owners via having a lawyer being the registered agent and never mention the financial owners. No particular reason that corporations couldn't be forced to reveal their financial backers.

And with the internet allowing individuals to make modest contributions then campaigns are now less dependent upon money men with connections to consistent large contributors. I'd be far more concerned about a constitutional amendment than the current system.

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Scott Ford 2 years, 8 months ago

Hi Scott W - I agree with you that amending the Constitution likely has more pitfalls and mischief than upside in this situation. In the short and perhaps in the long run the way to blunt the astounding amount of money that is being used to "buy" voice is a renewed commitment of each voter to acknowledge their responsibility to be well informed. To remind ourselves and each other that there is ALWAYS two sides to any story as well as context.

Because of Citizens United it has gotten a wee-bit harder to actually do what citizens are called to do; vote responsibility. This can be done, however, there is going to be a lot more political "noise" to wade through.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 8 months ago

I think the Citizens Uniited decision is legally ridiculous because since when does a legally regulated corporation somehow get constitutional rights of individual citizens? In particular, it defies common sense to say a legal structure (corporations) created to limit liability to individual investors then gets the rights of the individuals.

But I think the overall issue of allowing corporations to spend money on issues or campaigns is not a significant issue. It does not make sense for a country which constitutionally protects free speech to then say corporations running ads is an intolerable problem. And because it can be done by any company then it does not create much of an advantage for anyone because there will be money for all candidates. Nor it is that corrupting because there are so many spending so much money then elected officials don't owe much to any particular contributor.

What is far more corrupting are the arrangements where companies hire former elected officials for big pay. Fannie Mae knew exactly what they were doing when they hire Newt for $1.6M to write a history or such. They were telling current lawmakers that Fannie Mae will take care of friends. Maybe they could make retirement and whatever other benefits to former lawmakers dependent upon disclosing what they are doing for what pay.

And as the Charlie Rangel situation showed, it is not enough to ask officials to give ranges on income or assets. Rules should be changed to require that federally elected officials simply list their assets. If someone isn't willing to publicly disclose their financial assets then they don't have to run for Congress.

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