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Bid to cap school board campaign contributions fails; bill requiring more transparency advances

A bill that would have limited contributions in school board campaigns suffered a crushing defeat late Monday in a House committee.

But a second measure that would require more frequent financial disclosures in board races passed on unanimous vote of the House State Affairs Committee.

The original version of House Bill 16-1140 would have capped individual contributions to candidates at $500 and also limited contribution by committees.

The measure was introduced in response to last fall’s high spending in Denver school board and other district races. For example, incumbent Happy Haynes raised more than $120,000, including large individual contributions such as $5,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Robert Speth, who raised about half as much and narrowly lost to Haynes, testified in favor of the bill. Big contributions are “really warping the outcome of these races,” he said.

“The amount of money is our school board races is obscene,” said prime sponsor Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver.

But Democrats and Republicans alike on the committee were skeptical about the bill’s potential impact, arguing that contribution limits would just drive more spending by independent expenditure and other outside committees unconnected to candidates.

“Money will simply be transferred and be less transparent,” said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster.

Outside spending in board races already has exploded and was a big factor in some district races last fall.

The bill died on an 8-1 vote, with only Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, supporting it.

School board contribution limits never have been a popular idea at the Capitol. The Colorado Education Association and its affiliates, heavy contributors through small donor committees, always have opposed limits. Republicans are leery of limits in general.

A similar bill was introduced in 2010 in response to heavy DPS contributions the year before. It was defeated on the House floor.

In contrast to the contributions limits bill, the committee voted 9-0 to pass House Bill 16-1282, which would require more frequent reporting of contributions to and spending by school board candidates. It will be heard next in the House Appropriations Committee.

Board elections are held in odd-numbered years. But due to an anomaly in state law, candidates and committees don’t have to file disclosures as frequently as candidates who run for other offices in even-numbered years.

For example, in even-numbered years, most campaign committees must file reports every two weeks between the beginning of September and the general election in November.

But in odd-numbered years, most committees must file only a single report in mid-October and then not report again until the following January. So updated committee contributions and spending aren’t available to the public during the height of the campaign season.

The bill would require candidates and committees to file on the more frequent schedule, although elections would remain in odd-numbered years. A ballot measure proposed by the conservative Independence Institute for the November election would move board elections to even-numbered years. That initiative has to be reviewed by state officials before petitions can be circulated.

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