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Colorado Springs Should Clear Up Its Ban on Corporate Contributions

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Campaign finance law can be complicated, usually because corporate-rights advocates convince courts to announce increasingly difficult hurdles against popular efforts to regulate the flow of money in elections. But in the case of Colorado Springs, it's complicated because of the uniquely Colorado institution of municipal home rule. And the stakes are higher than ever because the city is about to elect its first mayor under its new "strong mayor" system.

The Colorado Springs Gazette is reporting that some mayoral candidates are scooping up direct contributions from corporations, while others believe that the Colorado Constitution's ban on such contributions (still in place even after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, it must be noted) applies to Colorado Springs city elections. Colorado Springs City Clerk Kathryn Young told the Gazette that the corporate contribution ban applies to candidates for Colorado Springs mayor.

Yet candidates could be forgiven if they thought the ban didn't apply to Colorado Springs, a home rule city with its own campaign finance ordinance. A 2003 formal opinion (pdf) from then-Attorney General Ken Salazar held that the corporate contribution ban "does not apply to candidates for local election in home rule or statutory localities." Thereafter, the opinion was formally incorporated into the state's Campaign and Political Finance Rules, which provide that state and constitutional restrictions on campaign money don't apply in home rule cities with their own laws on the subject.

The idea is that how a home rule city handles its municipal elections is not a matter of statewide concern, so if a city adopts its own set of laws, those laws will apply.

Therein lies the problem in Colorado Springs. Its city code does provide that the city "adopt[s] the provisions of the Fair Campaign Practices Act as amended," but the corporate contribution ban is found in the state constitution, not the Fair Campaign Practices Act. The City apparently intended to include all of the state's campaign finance regulations but didn't clearly say that in their ordinance.

This glitch apparently didn't matter much before last year's adoption of the strong mayor system. But with the stakes so much higher in this year's election, Colorado Springs should not tolerate an unbalanced playing field in which some candidates are complying with the corporate contribution ban and others are not based on Colorado's home rule laws. The City Council should act immediately to clarify the City Code to expressly prohibit corporate contributions to candidates.