Our View: Finding a middle ground
January 17, 2012
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.