In 2002, voters in Colorado supported sweeping changes to state campaign finance laws. The goal was to rein in the influence of money in elections. The law contained a strong preamble about how large campaign contributions could corrupt politics and give special interests, corporations and the rich disproportionate influence.
Then along came the millionaires running for governor, spending millions of their own dollars on their own campaigns.
The issue led B.J. Nikkel, a former state representative in Loveland, to look for ways to "stop wealthy politicians from buying public office." Working with a fellow Republican, former state Sen. Greg Brophy, the result is Amendment 75, which is on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The proposed amendment states that "if a candidate contributes $1 million or more of their own money to their campaign, then other candidates in that race may accept aggregate campaign contributions five times greater than the limits specified in current law."
The aim, Nikkel said, is to close what's been dubbed "the millionaire loophole."
The loophole works like this: If someone gives money to a campaign in Colorado, they can only give so much. For governor, the maximum this cycle is $1,150. But a candidate can give as much as they want to themselves with no limits. That provision traces back to the Buckley v. Valeo U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1976, which essentially equated candidates' spending with their freedom of speech.
Nikkel sees that as an unfair advantage for millionaire candidates, who already can give themselves a head start in politics because of their wealth.
"This limits non-wealthy candidates," said Nikkel.
Democrat Jared Polis, who has broken all records with a more than $22 million (and counting) gubernatorial campaign that is vastly self-funded, is a supporter of Amendment 75. So is his opponent in the race, Republican Walker Stapleton.
When businessman Victor Mitchell put roughly $5 million into his campaign during the Republican primaries, Stapleton dipped into his own fortunes to contribute about $1 million to his own campaign, adding that he was lucky to be able to do so.
"I think we need to do more to level the playing field," Stapleton said of Amendment 75.
Current campaign law allows candidates to adhere to "voluntary spending limits," but neither Stapleton nor Polis agreed to those and no major candidate for governor in a general election ever has, according to Secretary of State Office records.
Opponents question Amendment 75
Opponents of 75, including Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit that fights for accountability in government, view the proposed amendment as misguided.
"We don't believe the solution to money in politics is more money in politics," said Caroline Fry, the organization's director of outreach. "The whole theory of leveling the playing field by quintupling contribution limits -- all this is doing is opening our elections to more big spenders."
Amendment 75, she added, has the potential to undermine a law that's key to state campaign finace rules: Amendment 27, which Common Cause and other groups introduced a generation ago as a way to rein in money in elections. Sixty-six percent of Coloradans supported the amendment in 2002.
Fry also takes issue with wording in Amendment 75, which would relax limits for candidates who are "facilitating or coordinating" third-party contributions that amount to more than $1 million. She said that could open the floodgates for outside groups to spend millions more dollars on elections.
Because it is a proposed state constitutional amendment, Amendment 75 must pass with 55 percent of the vote. Nickel is confident it can clear that hurdle.
"We've gathered the highest number of signatures ever on a statewide ballot initiative and we think that's because really are tired of millionaires buying elections," she said.
Approaching Election Day, Polis continues to spend big. In the closing days of his campaign, he's expected to spend about $3 million on ads. That's almost as much money as Walker Stapleton has raised since first announcing his gubernatorial campaign more than one year ago.
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