Gessler: Campaign finance laws fail

University of Denver panel examines reform

DENVER – Colorado’s efforts at campaign-finance reform have been a failure, Secretary of State Scott Gessler told an academic panel on money in politics Wednesday.

Gessler, a Republican elected in 2010, is the state’s top enforcer of campaign-finance laws. But he said the laws – especially a 2002 constitutional amendment that set low donation limits and high fines – have given more power to rich, independent groups at the expense of candidates.

“In many ways, I think this campaign-finance world has failed – just failed – by its own terms,” Gessler said.

In the wake of the state’s most expensive election, the University of Denver set up a panel of civic leaders to see what, if anything, can be done to regulate money in politics. Gessler spoke to the group Wednesday.

The 2002 voter-approved amendment said candidates for the Colorado General Assembly and many other offices can raise just $400 from each donor. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has said people and corporations can spend unlimited amounts on politics, as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates.

“We have such small dollar limits that the candidates spend a huge, inordinate amount of time chasing money because they have to fill an ocean one teaspoonful at a time,” Gessler said.

Gessler said fines most often fall on unsophisticated candidates and grass-roots committees, not the big special interests. He told the DU group that he was proud his office has rewritten some rules and has collected half as many fines as in the past.

Gessler was the go-to election lawyer for Colorado Republicans before he was elected secretary of state.

Mark Grueskin, a top Democratic elections lawyer, also spoke Wednesday morning and agreed with Gessler on several points. The $400 donation limit is too low, Grueskin said.

The 2012 election proved that big money doesn’t always buy elections, Grueskin said. The super PACs that arose from the Supreme Court decision spent more than $1 billion on federal races, but just a third of that cash went to winning candidates. GOP operative Karl Rove oversaw $400 million in spending, but just 5.7 percent of his money went to winning candidates, Grueskin said.

A bigger problem is secret money, he said. Nonprofit groups can hide their donors, and they have become bigger players in Colorado since 2008, especially in ballot-issue campaigns.

“We ought to know who is supporting candidates or who is opposing them, whether it is direct or indirect (spending),” Grueskin said.

A liberal watchdog group has proposed that Colorado create a nonpartisan, neutral office to oversee elections law, instead of the partisan secretary of state.

“I think that’s a totally legitimate issue for this group to study,” Grueskin said.

Gessler said there’s not much that can be done about those annoying TV commercials that assault TV viewers every two years.

“If you don’t like the TV ads, that’s the price we pay as a free society,” Gessler said.

The DU panel plans to issue a report in the middle of next year.