Remember Amendment S? It was a statewide personnel reform measure on the 2012 Colorado ballot. It was the signature initiative of Governor John Hickenlooper, who as Mayor of Denver had successfully promoted a similar initiative to amend the city's charter. Amendment S passed comfortably, with little organized opposition and a well-funded campaign in support.
Thanks to Colorado's campaign finance disclosure laws, we know who funded the Yes on S campaign, and the answers may surprise. The largest contributions came from a handful of corporations, including Total Renal Care, Inc. of Tacoma, Washington, which contributed $100,000, and Texas oil giant ConocoPhillips, which gave $50,000. Other large contributors included oil & gas companies Encana ($25,000), Pioneer Natural Resources ($15,000) and Bill Barrett Corp. ($10,000). The National Institute for Money in State Politics calculated that the health care (by virtue of Total Renal Care's giant contribution) and oil & gas industries together contributed $217,000 to the Yes on S campaign. Health care and oil & gas companies contributed over a third of all of the money raised in support of Amendment S.
Why does it matter? Once thought of as an uncorruptible populist device to bypass politicians beholden to special interests, ballot initiative elections have become a big-money playground. Merely getting on the ballot is expensive, and once a measure is on the ballot, more often than not the side with the most money wins.
And as Amendment S demonstrates, ballot initiatives don't always come from political outsiders. Sometimes they are closely identified with politicians who hope to use a campaign as a springboard for higher office (like Jared Polis with Amendment 41 and Tom Lucero, less successfully, with Amendment 54).
When a sitting elected official, like Governor Hickenlooper, effectively sponsors a ballot issue campaign, the potential that donors will think they are buying access or favors from the official would seem to be just as high as they would be if donors were giving to his own campaign. Thanks to myopic Supreme Court decisions that failed to recognize the possibility that contributions to ballot issue campaigns could be used to curry favor with elected officials, there are no contribution limits in such elections and corporate money can flow freely.
This could explain why out-of-state oil & gas interests were so keen to involve themselves in a campaign over state personnel reform in Colorado. How Colorado state employees are hired, evaluated and promoted is likely of less interest to these large corporations than the fact that the Governor supported Amendment S. The governor's ability to sign or veto legislation and power to appoint members of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission bears more directly on the business of these companies.
Thankfully, Colorado citizens still have the ability to learn who is spending money to influence ballot initiatives and the politicians who promote them. As Governor Hickenlooper and his appointees make critical decisions regarding the future of oil and gas development in Colorado, we should all keep in mind who supported his Amendment S campaign.