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Lawmakers, watchdogs mull reining in secret campaign cash

A month after the most expensive school board race in local history, exactly how much money was spent on the Colorado Springs School District 11 election remains a mystery.

Reports show more than $700,000, but some shadowy groups that spent vast amounts of cash on the election have exploited lax campaign-finance laws to keep their contributions and funding sources secret.

Now, some people are calling for tightening those laws.

"I think it would be an excellent idea," says state Rep. Mike Merrifield, a Democrat whose legislative district includes most of School District 11.

Colorado already has one of the strongest campaign-finance laws in the country. Voters three years ago approved a constitutional amendment that strictly limits contributions in state elections.

But those restrictions don't apply to school board races. Moreover, organizations known as "527" groups can spend unlimited amounts of money in connection with local, state or national elections.

Such groups dominated the D-11 race, pouring big bucks into fliers and broadcast ads. One of them, Rally in Support of Education, spent at least $480,000 supporting the three candidates who won: John Gudvangen, Tami Hasling and Sandra Mann. The state teachers' union supplied most of the group's cash.

On the opposite side, three secretive outfits called All Children Matter-Colorado, Parents Targeting Achievement, and Independant Voters for Equality Education and Opportunity for Children [sic] backed candidates Bob Lathen, Reginald Perry and Carla Albers, who lost.

By law, the groups have to disclose contributions and spending prior to "primary" and "general" elections. School board elections don't fall under either category.

Rally in Support of Education chose to report its finances anyway, but the other groups didn't.

"The reason why people use 527s is because they want to hide the money," says Pete Maysmith, executive director of the campaign-finance watchdog group Colorado Common Cause.

Another campaign-finance advocacy organization, the Virginia-based Reform Institute, is urging states to regulate 527s. In September, West Virginia became the first to do so, and Merrifield says he'll look into whether Colorado should make a similar move.

Rep. Richard Decker, a Republican from Fountain, says he supports the idea "in theory." In some state Senate campaigns last year, the groups spent as much as $500,000, he notes.

"That's obscene," Decker says.

-- Terje Langeland

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