By Brad Jones, FACE THE STATE
While Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper organizes his “diverse” transition team (as the Denver Post put it), there are wrinkles to be ironed out in other transfers of power, too. Take this week’s ruling by the 10th U.S. District Court of Appeals, which found Colorado’s campaign finance law relating to issue committees to be unconstitutionally burdensome. A small group of Parker North residents had challenged the law, saying its requirements squelched free speech.
The extent to which government should regulate – and limit – political spending has long been a fault line dividing Republican and Democrats. Voters approved Amendment 27 in 2002, which imposed strict limits on individuals’ donations while still allowing labor unions to funnel membership dues to candidates through “small donor committees.”
Common Cause, a liberal nonprofit, advanced the measure and remains the leading voice in Colorado for tighter campaign-finance rules. Republicans, on the other hand, long have sought to unwind Amendment 27’s donation caps and restrictions on corporate political speech. The state GOP even initiated a lawsuit to wipe out the donation limits entirely following the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of corporate spending restrictions earlier this year.
Caught in the middle are community groups like the Parker North plaintiffs. Republican women’s clubs around Colorado were ordered to register each of their dozens of chapters as individual “527” political organizations – and comply with regular reporting requirements – or risk hefty fines.
With appointed Democrat Bernie Buescher making way for Republican Secretary of State-elect Scott Gessler, the decision whether to appeal this week’s ruling may prove a hot potato in the transfer of power and provide an early signal of the office’s future stance on election law reform.
Buescher’s spokesman, Rich Coolidge, says no decision has yet been reached regarding whether to appeal. The Attorney General’s Office, which by law defends state statutes in court, says a motion for rehearing or a review by the full 10th Circuit would be due within 14 days.
The other option: do nothing and let the court’s ruling stand. That may be philosophically more in line with Gessler’s view of the law, which he said is “oftentimes burdensome and very difficult to apply.” But given how Buescher serves through mid-January, and has defended the lawsuit thus far, an appeal could be well underway by the time Gessler gets to work.
Buescher’s office says he is still reviewing the ruling and has not yet discussed the matter specifically with Gessler. The two met as soon as the day after the election to begin working on a smooth transition. If they differ on whether to appeal and Buescher pushes on, Gessler will have to decide whether to change course just two months later.
Either way, voters won’t be waiting long to see how a change in leadership will affect Colorado’s elections rules.