Election candidates could take up to $750,000 of public money under new Denver proposal

If you give $10, it could become $100.
6 min. read
VOTE HERE, set up in front of the City and County Building. June 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Denver City Council is considering a proposal to give public money to some political candidates -- one of the first such systems in the state. The new rules also would dramatically reduce the amount that donors can give to political candidates, and they would ban corporate donations to campaigns.

The proposal, which is being pushed by Councilman Kevin Flynn and other city officials, is a reaction to the growing momentum of the grassroots Democracy for the People campaign.

If the council and the grassroots organizers come to a compromise, the question is set to go before voters this fall. If not, voters will see a slightly different proposal.

Candidates would have to raise money to get public dollars.

Under both proposals, the city would provide matching money for each donation collected by candidates for office.

The city would match up to $50 of each donor's contribution at a 9-to-1 ratio -- so, up to $450 per donor. It would only be available for candidates who attract enough supporters and accept limits on donations.

The idea is to "give a greater voice to small donors, thereby encouraging more citizens to get involved in the financing of election campaigns," as the bill describes itself.

The proposal's backers say it would make small-dollar donors 10 times more lucrative to candidates, giving a new incentive for candidates to canvass in neighborhoods rather than chasing the city's upper class.

"It’s a chance to take elections back," said Owen Perkins, one of the political organizers who has pushed for the change.

The system would give a maximum of $750,000 for mayoral candidates; $250,000 for at-large council candidates and other city offices; and $125,000 for district council candidates. The money would be paid out in several waves -- one in August the year before a municipal election, followed by monthly or twice-a-month payments from January through the elections in May.

Boulder has a similar system, but it provides only a 1-to-1 match. Denver's money would come with a few strings attached, which we'll cover later.

The proposal is a reaction to the grassroots campaign.

The Democracy for the People initiative has proposed a very similar question for the ballot.

"We need campaign finance reform as soon as possible. That’s the bottom line," said Candi CdeBaca, a council candidate and an organizer of the initiative.

Her group collected enough signatures to get the question on this November's ballot, but Denver officials raised questions about the timing.

If voters approved it, the current DFP proposal would kick into effect on Jan. 1, in the middle of election season. (The organizers originally tried to get the question on an earlier ballot, and they got stuck with their original language.Council candidate Tony Pigford also is on the committee, along with Perkins, Jonathan Biggerstaff and Derrick Blankton.)

Councilman Flynn said that implementing the program so quickly could be "a disaster," with multiple sets of rules in effect simultaneously. So, he has been meeting with the campaigners to come up with a few tweaks -- most notably, delaying the potential implementation until Jan. 1, 2020.

CdeBaca and Perkins both say they want the idea implemented as soon as possible, but Perkins said the council proposal meets the core goals of the initiative.

Ironically, Flynn doesn't actually like the idea of publicly funded electioneering."I think it’s fair to say that I’m not really a supporter of the concept, but I am a supporter of, 'If the people choose it, it should be something that works,'" the councilman said.

"... I may still oppose it at the ballot box. I have too many other uses for our general fund money in terms of public safety, street paving, potholes."

Candidates would have to follow special rules to get the money.

To qualify, candidates would have to prove their popularity by attracting at least 250 unique donors in the mayoral races; other offices would need 100.

And, on the other hand, they would face new limits on the money they can accept from each donor.

Currently, donors can give $3,000 in each cycle to mayoral candidates, $2,000 for at-large council members and other positions, and $1,000 to district council members.

The proposal would cut those numbers down for all candidates -- not just publicly funded candidates. The new ceiling would be $1,000 for mayoral candidates, $700 for the next tier, and $400 for district council members. (Those numbers would increase with inflation.)

And the limits for candidates taking public money would go even lower -- just half of the new limits for everyone else.

"If you choose to take the matching funds, then you're choosing to take lower limits still," Perkins said.

But wait -- there's more.

The proposal also would ban corporations, LLCs, labor organizations, and other groups from making contributions to any candidates, whether or not the candidates are publicly funded.

"If you own 10 businesses, you can contribute 10 times to the same campaign," Perkins said. "That’s been a huge source of that inequity. We’re eliminating corporations from contributing to campaigns across the board."

Businesses still could contribute to political action committees, which could in turn give money to some candidates -- but not to those who accept public dollars.

"Programs like the one council is considering will strengthen a candidate’s ability to compete with the big money being spent by corporations and PACs while still being responsive to voters," wrote Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the voter engagement group Colorado Common Cause, in an email to Denverite.

What's next?

The council proposal goes to the finance and governance committee on Tuesday. They'll likely refer it to the full council. If the council and the Democracy for the People campaign both approve of the compromise, the ballot measure will be revised.

If it's approved, the plan would ask the city to put about $3 per resident per year  -- about $2 million for 2017 --into the "Fair Elections Fund," which would hold a maximum of $8 million.

Perkins' group analyzed the financial reports of 50 municipal candidates from the 2015 election. The results, he said: 47 of them would have raised more money by accepting the public funds.

Meanwhile, a few of those with higher-dollar donors -- Mayor Michael Hancock, Councilman Albus Brooks and former council candidate Chris Nevitt in 2015 --  would still do better by rejecting the public dollars, Perkins said.

Updated to reflect a revised draft of the bill.

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