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State ices slush funds

Cash and in-kind gifts measure avoids veto pen


Gov. Bill Owens
  • Gov. Bill Owens

Despite heavy pro-veto lobbying by unnamed lawmakers, last week Gov. Bill Owens allowed a measure to become law that cracks down on large, unmonitored contributions to political officeholders.

The bill became law without Owens' signature, as the governor simply allowed a veto deadline to pass, says his spokesman, Nate Strauch.

Strauch says Owens declined to sign the bill to express a measure of empathy for lawmakers like Sen. Ron May, R-Colorado Springs, who argued that office accounts were needed to reimburse expenses such as cell phone calls and gasoline. Still, as a result of the governor's inaction, May will not reap any such benefits.

"The bill was not perfect, but an important step in the right direction," Strauch says.

Senate Bill 51 establishes a $50 limit on cash contributions to office accounts like the one maintained by Sen. Tom Wiens, a Castle Rock Republican. Last year, Wiens raised $20,590 in cash from his constituents to hire a staff member to assist with various policy initiatives, including tort reform. Critics contend that such funds could easily be funneled into political campaigns.

Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder
  • Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder

Also banned by the bill are limitless in-kind contributions to legislators, such as the $88,000 worth of controversial mailings a secretive group known only as "Research and Democracy" sent last year to benefit 10 Democrats, including Rep. Michael Merrifield of Manitou Springs. Merrifield claims he did not solicit the mailings but reported them on disclosure forms because he was advised to do so by leaders in his party.

The mailing spawned a bitter phone campaign by the TrailHead Group, a political nonprofit founded by several prominent Republicans, including Owens.

SB 51 sponsor Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, says such controversies will come to an end with this bill.

Tupa failed in prior sessions to find support for a bill banning gifts. Several recent ethics scandals, however, helped cement support, he says.

For example, in separate controversies, Sen. Deanna Hanna, a Lakewood Democrat, resigned her position, and Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, stepped down as House minority leader. Around the same time, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal was unfolding in Washington, D.C.

"You put all these ingredients together, and the bill squeaked by," Tupa says.

Sen. Ron May, R-Colorado Springs
  • Sen. Ron May, R-Colorado Springs

Four of the 24 representatives and senators who opposed the bill in March hail from El Paso County, including Sens. May and Doug Lamborn and Reps. Dave Schultheis and Lynn Hefley.

Lamborn, who is running for U.S. Congress, did not return a call requesting an interview.

Tupa predicts some lawmakers will try to fill office accounts with cash before the law goes into effect on July 1.

"There are three weeks before the barn doors close," Tupa says.

Common Cause Colorado, a nonprofit watchdog group, feared the office accounts and in-kind contributions could be used as a way to escape Amendment 27 campaign-finance limits approved by voters in 2002. The group also feared the accounts made it too easy for lobbyists to approach lawmakers with cash before key votes.

Had the bill been in effect in 2005, more than half the $310,000 in gifts that lobbyists and other interests gave legislators would have been illegal, according to an Independent analysis of forms filed by lawmakers.

The bill does not prevent lawmakers from receiving sports, theater and air travel tickets. Professional lobbyists, who outnumber lawmakers at the state Capitol more than 5-to-1, often purchase such items and give them to lawmakers as gifts.

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