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Colorado legislators consider cap on school board campaign donations

After unprecedented spending in the Denver school board election, Colorado lawmakers are considering limits on how much money donors can give to school board candidates.

But the legislation, which a House committee passed Thursday, won’t affect spending by independent expenditure committees or prevent wealthy candidates from funding their own campaigns.

While individual candidates sometimes receive substantial donations, the importance of candidate spending in recent school board elections has declined, as independent expenditure committees that don’t have to disclose their donors have poured money into races. Last fall one candidate, Scott Baldermann, spent more than $300,000 of his own money and defeated two opponents.

U.S. Supreme Court cases protect these types of spending, which were responsible for making the 2019 Denver Public Schools board election the most expensive in the district’s history. Total spending by candidates and committees exceeded $2 million. Given those limitations, it’s unclear what the long-term effect of this bill could be.

Nonetheless, proponents said limiting individual donations is a common-sense first step toward reducing the influence of money in politics.

“I believe contribution limits are important for the integrity of our election process,” said state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “It avoids even the appearance of impropriety.”

The legislation would limit individual donors to $2,500 per election cycle and small donor committees, such as that used by the Denver teachers union, to $25,000.

These limits mirror ones placed on donors to candidates for county office last year.

Right now, state law places no limits on how much an individual donor can give to a school board candidate. In the most recent school board election, candidates who were more supportive of education reform policies received numerous individual donations as high as $10,000.

Even the $2,500 limit is generous under Colorado law. Donors to candidates for statewide offices like governor or treasurer are limited to $575 per election cycle, and donors to state legislature candidates cannot give more than $200. Small donor committees are limited to $6,125 for statewide offices and $2,425 for legislative races.

Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Common Cause, an advocacy group that supports campaign finance limitations, said that ideally the limits for school board election would be even lower than those in the bill.

“Too much money in politics creates the risk, the appearance, and sometimes the reality of undue influence,” she said. “It also creates an uneven playing field in which not all voices are heard.”

Colorado school board elections have become increasingly expensive, not just in Denver but also in districts like Douglas County and Jefferson County, as ideological battles over vouchers, curriculum, and education reform drew national interest.

Previous efforts to limit spending in school board elections were defeated in 2016 and 2018.

Read more: This year’s Denver school board election was the most expensive in history

Money does not always determine the outcome of school board elections. In the most recent Denver race, Tay Anderson won the at-large race despite being significantly outspent by Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who had the backing of independent expenditure committees associated with education reform. In Jefferson County, Susan Miller defeated a union-backed candidate, Joan Chávez-Lee, who had a huge fundraising advantage.

But as in all elections, money certainly helps — or people wouldn’t bother to spend it.

Radhika Nath, who lost in a three-way race with union-endorsed candidate Baldermann and reform-backed candidate Diana Romero Campbell, told lawmakers that the money spent by other candidates ultimately had a chilling effect on her potential donors, who became skeptical she could prevail.

Independent expenditure committees spent a collective $1.16 million in the 2019 Denver school board race, with the vast majority of that coming from groups associated with education reform.

Asked if limits on individual donations might inadvertently increase the influence of these committees, Sirota said she didn’t think there would be much change.

“What we have seen is in a post-Citizens United world, we cannot limit them,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to unlimited spending by these committees. “They already play such an outsized role that I don’t see this making it worse.”