A University of Denver panel charged with making recommendations for campaign finance reform was told on Wednesday that the best way to stop money from corroding the political system is to offer public financing and free advertising airtime for campaigns.
The 19-member task force has been holding a series of meetings with experts to determine whether there should be campaign finance regulations, and what those regulations should look like. Panel members include Joe Blake, former chancellor of the Colorado State University System and former chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Dick Robinson, chief executive of Robinson Dairy, attorney John Moye, a partner with Moye White, LLP, former state Sen. Polly Baca, D-Greeley, and Stephanie Villafuerte, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, to name a few.
On Wednesday, the task force heard from former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, and Katie Behnke, a managing partner at the fundraising firm Starboard Group.
Both Edgar and Romanoff made the argument for inserting public financing and free airtime into the campaign finance equation. They believe doing so would limit influence by special interests and hand the outcome of elections to the people.
“I want elected officials to serve the public interest; I want the House and Senate to work on majority rule, not just the minority, but the majority rule, and I want our elected officials once elected to spend almost all of their time legislating,” Edgar told the panel.
His focus is more on federal campaign finance, suggesting that lawmakers are forced to spend the majority of their time raising funds for re-election campaigns, as opposed to working on policy issues.
Common Cause has also been pushing back against the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court backed unlimited spending by corporations and unions, calling it a matter of free speech.
The organization pushed a ballot initiative in Colorado this year — Amendment 65 — that calls on the Colorado congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would effectively overturn Citizens United. Colorado voters overwhelmingly backed the drive.
“Colorado became our laboratory…” explained Edgar. “And 75 percent of the voters pushed back on Citizens United here in Colorado, and you started a virus that we hope to spread across the country.”
Romanoff echoed many of the thoughts expressed by Edgar. When he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010 in a Democratic primary against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Romanoff refused to take political action committee money. He was so badly outraised by Bennet at the time, that Romanoff sold his house to pay for campaign debts. Bennet went on to beat him.
Recalling the primary, Romanoff told the panel that he spent 80 percent of his time “dialing for dollars.” He also held town halls and wrote white papers on policy issues, but most of that was “wasted,” he remembered, noting that the media was only focused on fundraising and ad time.
“I believe this process distorts the pool of candidates who choose to run. Second, I think it warps the pool who win. And third, and most dangerously, it mangles the decisions they make as a result,” Romanoff said of the current campaign finance system.
The former House speaker said he believes in the free market, but he doesn’t believe it’s practical in the political arena because money shouldn’t buy candidates, and it shouldn’t influence public policy. That’s where the public funding comes in, he said.
“I’m a capitalist; I believe in free markets. I believe the economic system America has, if not perfected at least popularized, is the greatest engine of economic growth in the history of the world,” declared Romanoff, who through his current position as a senior advisor for iDE travels the world advocating innovation for poor countries. “I just don’t happen to think that democracy should be treated like any other commodities, and public offices should be bought and sold like other goods and services that are in this system.”
Behnke offered a perspective from the people who are fueling the fundraising. Her firm raises money and establishes financial plans for Republican candidates in Colorado.
She spoke of the unclear nature of campaign finance laws, especially as it pertains to coordinating with special interest groups. Candidates are strictly forbidden to coordinate with political action committees, but the area is gray, as attorneys are hired to simply find workarounds, explained Behnke.
“There are some very smart attorneys that I know who I have heard from previously that that is their job to see how close you can get to that line,” Behnke said to chuckles from the panel.
As panel member Blake pointed out, a candidate’s best friend, who has no official association to the campaign, could simply do the coordinating for his friend, and it would not be an official communication between the political action committee and the candidate committee.
“If you’re not a candidate, and there’s not a coordinated campaign effort, and you’re not running… that’s not coordinated,” concluded Behnke. “But it is a very gray area.”
The task force will issue a report with recommendations by next summer. The committee has at least another two meetings before it issues its report. Future presenters are expected to include U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, and Jennie Bowser, representing the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Panel members have been asking several technical questions during the presentations, but they have not been offering their perspectives. But Blake — who led the business community for nearly 10 years as chief of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce — told The Colorado Statesman that he was not immediately concerned by the proposal to eliminate the free market component to campaign financing.
“At this stage of my trying to get an understanding, a grip on these issues, it’s fair game to throw out any ideas,” he said. “But what is going to be the hard work, is what are the unintended consequences? What are the practical aspects to this?”