Campaign-finance reforms seem to be gaining popular momentum across the nation, with Congress having passed the McCain-Feingold bill and several states enacting local measures to reduce the influence of special-interest money in political campaigns.
Now, reform advocates in Colorado are hoping the energy will carry over into the Nov. 5 elections, when voters will be asked to limit campaign contributions in state races.
Not that Colorado is a Johnny-come-lately. The state's voters actually approved campaign-finance reform back in 1996.
But two years ago, state lawmakers threw out the voter-approved measures after one of them was found unconstitutional.
This year, a coalition called Coloradans for Campaign Reform is again seeking to pass measures designed to restore the 1996 campaign-finance reforms in a way that will pass constitutional muster. Secretary of State Donetta Davidson announced Monday that the coalition's initiative will appear on the November ballot.
"I think this is going to reshape Colorado politics," said Pete Maysmith, director of Colorado Common Cause, which is heading up the referendum coalition along with the League of Women Voters and an organization called Voter Revolt.
One opponent, meanwhile, says the initiative could actually strengthen the influence of special-interest groups.
To limit or not to limit
Approved by 66 percent of the voters, the 1996 reforms limited individual campaign contributions to $100 per candidate per election in legislative races, and $500 per candidate per election in statewide races. It also included a provision for candidates to commit themselves to voluntary spending limits, and it banned contributions from corporations and labor unions.
In August 1999, a U.S. district judge found the contribution limits unconstitutional. But less than six months later, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a separate case, said contribution limits were permissible.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the Colorado Legislature used the district court ruling as justification to void all of the provisions in the 1996 referendum.
The new ballot initiative seeks to reinstate the voluntary spending limits and the ban on corporate and union donations. It would also impose the same contribution limits as the 1996 referendum, except that a legislative candidate could collect $200 from an individual donor. In addition, it calls for enhanced donor disclosure.
Maysmith says he's confident the measures are constitutional, given the Supreme Court ruling.
"We need to make people and ideas the most important thing in politics," Maysmith said. "That's not the way it is now. Money drives politics, and that's not the way democracy's supposed to work."
While the 1996 referendum changed state statutes, the 2002 initiative seeks to amend the state Constitution. That way, Maysmith says, the Legislature can't overturn it without asking for another referendum.
While no committee had been formed to fight the initiative as of press time, the Republican Party of Colorado has come out against it. The state Democratic Party, however, has not taken a formal position
Alan Philp, executive director of the state GOP, said the measure would "eviscerate" state and county political parties, which now funnel many campaign contributions to candidates.
Candidates would have to build "direct relationships" with special-interest groups to pick up contributions that now go through the party apparatuses, Philp said. As a result, candidates may in fact become more beholden to those special interests, he said.
"It empowers special interests at the expense of political parties," Philp asserted.