Court ruling could lead to more election laws on disclosure

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A Colorado Supreme Court opinion delivered last Monday provides clarity to the state’s campaign finance laws and has spurred legislation to amend disclosure rules.

House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, and Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, are drafting a bill that would alter disclosure rules for those taking part in electioneering campaigns or making independent expenditures. Only scant details about the bill are available while Carroll prepares it for introduction.

“The U.S. Supreme Court gave us a wide window as far as disclosure and disclosure requirements, and that’ll be the key part of the legislation and how we find out who is spending money for or against who,” the Minority Leader said.

Weissmann said the bill might not be introduced until the second week in April as both chambers work on the Long Bill.

“I believe this needs to be urgently addressed this session before we go into the 2010 election cycle with gaping loopholes,” Carroll said in a statement Wednesday. “I am still working on my draft to make sure we get it right but hope to have it ready for introduction soon.”

The Colorado high court’s opinion came weeks after Gov. Bill Ritter submitted two interrogatories questioning the legality of Colorado’s election laws following the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC in January. The federal court found laws barring unions and corporations from contributing to campaigns for or against a candidate unconstitutionally restricted free speech.

Monday’s opinion strikes down state constitution sections 3.4 and 6.2 in Article XXVIII. Corporations and unions in the state can now contribute uncapped amounts of money to advocacy campaigns and can sponsor mailers and TV ads.

“We’re very fortunate that the Supreme Court acted on this so expeditiously,” said Secretary of State Bernie Buescher.

Existing disclosure rules governing political committees and 527 and 501(c)(4) organizations are “inadequate,” according to Buescher. He said he is engaged in conversations with Carroll and Weissmann as they form the disclosure bill.

“I’m hopeful that one of the things that will come out of this is enhanced disclosures,” he said. “I think a lot of this discussion over the next week or so will be on how to make sure that the level of disclosure is appropriate.”

Weissmann hinted that any change to disclosure requirements would spring from current rules, which he said are already considered­­ tight.

“We have pretty strict limits in disclosure requirements for candidate committees, for 527s, and certainly some pretty decent ones for issue committees, but given the United State’s Supreme Court decision, it really opens up the door for unlimited, unknown funding of campaigns and issues,” he said. “We can’t do anything about the unlimited nature but we certainly can do something about the unknown.”

John Zakhem, a campaign finance attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm law school, said current disclosure laws governing electioneering campaigns and independent expenditures are sufficient.

“The law, as it stands, requires just about anybody to make reports on their advocacy,” said Zakhem, who formerly served as counsel to the state GOP.

Weissmann speculated that the disclosure bill could garner bipartisan support.

“Some might not believe that there should be limits on contributions, but most people believe that there ought to be disclosure,” he said.

Buescher said the Colorado high court’s opinion eliminates imminent lawsuit threats from entities like corporations desiring clarification on Colorado’s laws before elections heat up. However, Citizens United opens discussion on several other topics that may end up decided in the courts, Buescher said. Questions are arising about contribution limits and campaign finance rules for U.S. subsidiaries of foreign owned corporations.

“[Citizens United] was an incredibly complex decision,” he said. “Going forward I think there’s going to be continuous conversation and discussion on this issue.”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com