Backers of a sweeping Denver campaign finance reform initiative have agreed to a deal with city officials that would replace the measure on the November ballot with a revised version that delays the changes until after next year’s municipal election.
Voter approval for the new proposal this fall would result in drastically lower contribution limits for candidates seeking city offices, as well as a ban no direct corporate and union contributions. The ballot measure also would institute a voluntary public financing system that, for participating candidates, would use city funds to provide 9-to-1 matching of contributions up to $50.
While the thrust of those elements is unchanged from the original Democracy for the People initiative, the City Council’s proposed replacement would make several changes to dates and other details, such as how quickly the city must issue matching checks.
The council’s Finance and Governance Committee began the ballot referral process Tuesday with a unanimous vote to advance the measure to the full council.
In seeking changes that affect the timing and technical details, city officials — some of whom are lukewarm on the initiative’s ideas — are acting in large part on a belief that it has a good chance of passing.
Their talks with the initiative backers concluded Monday afternoon. The petitioners committee, which has five members, agreed to withdraw its ballot-approved initiative once the council votes to refer the revised question to the ballot, likely on Aug. 27, petitioner Owen Perkins said.
He participated in recurring discussions with council members, Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson’s office and the mayor’s office.
“There was a lot of give and take in a lot of the conversations over the last 30 days,” Johnson said in an interview.
Under the current initiative, which qualified for the 2018 ballot last November, the proposed new contribution limits and public financing scheme would take effect immediately — creating a situation that Johnson argued would be difficult or impossible for her office, which is charged with implementation.
More than three dozen candidates already have declared for mayor, clerk and council races for the May 2019 election. Several have been raising money. And some, including Mayor Michael Hancock, already have collected donations above the lower proposed limits in the initiative, as Councilman Kevin Flynn points out.
Perkins acknowledged that the council measure’s delay might make the deal bittersweet for some supporters of tighter campaign finance controls. If approved by voters, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, at the start of the 2023 election cycle.
“The big tradeoff is that there’s so much eagerness to put this through now,” Perkins said. “What’s on the ballot already puts it into play in 2019, in our next elections. I haven’t seen anybody in Denver — other than the people I’ve talked to in the City and County Building — who is eager to wait for four more years. There’s a sense that something like this is really needed.”
But Perkins said the revised measure improves on the initiative, while retaining its major elements. And the timing changes ensure it would be implemented carefully by the city, he said.
Proud to support replacmnt Public Financing/campaign reform moving through Council. Current proposal would have changed rules mid-stream freezing current candidates out, with no funding or structure to implement for May. Thx to Democracy for the People supporters for partnering.
— Robin Kniech (@KniechAtLarge) August 14, 2018
The council’s rewrite also removes provisions that seek to regulate independent spending in elections, since those largely mirror rules approved by the council in a clamp-down a year ago, after the initiative was drafted.
Both the original and the council versions would reduce the per-donor contribution limits from $3,000 to $1,000 for mayoral candidates; from $2,000 to $700 for candidates for auditor, clerk and the two at-large council seats; and from $1,000 to $400 for the council’s 11 district seats. Those new amounts would be pegged to inflation.
The city also would have to set aside about $2 million a year in the new Fair Elections Fund, with a cap set at $8 million. The city would provide $450 for every $50 donation raised by participating candidates, who would have to agree to even lower contribution limits and to take part in debates.
Perkins and other backers argue the proposed matching system — which is similar to those available in a handful of other U.S. cities, including Boulder and New York City — would free candidates from the need to court high-spending interests, allowing them to focus more energy on talking with voters.
The other petitioners include civic activists as well as Candi CdeBaca and Tony Pigford, who subsequently filed to run in council races.
A challenge facing the initiative was that organizers originally intended to qualify the measure for the November 2017 ballot. They fell about 400 signatures short, a gap they remedied by collecting more signatures — but not before the deadline to make the 2017 ballot.
That pushed the measure to this year’s ballot, meaning that approval by voters would give the city little breathing room to implement the new ordinance before the upcoming city election.
“Even well-intentioned programs can be poorly executed, and I think that’s the case here,” said Flynn, who chairs the council’s governance committee and was among the most active participants in the talks.
Document: The City Council’s proposed ballot measure for referral to the Nov. 6 ballot