State Court Rules Colorado Union Made Illegal Contributions

Back in 2002, Colorado voters passed by a 2-to-1 margin an initiative called Amendment 27 to overhaul the state’s campaign finance laws.  The law bans direct corporate and union contributions to candidates and parties, and also reduces contribution ceilings to candidates and political action committees.  Voters had approved a similar measure back in 1996, only to see the Colorado legislature repeal it.  But the newer law, which can only be repealed or amended through voter approval, is being tested in the courts.  It seems to have passed muster for now.  On July 20, the state’s Court of Appeals ruled that the Denver-based Colorado Education Association (CEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, had overstepped its bounds when it provided certain forms of help to the campaign of a state Senator still in office. 


The case began when two plaintiffs, Wayne Rutt and Paul Marrick, protested the use of dues money by the CEA and one of its local affiliates in support of Democrat Bob Bacon’s 1994 campaign for state senator.  An administrative law judge initially sided with the union.  But the appellate court reversed the decision on grounds that the union had rendered material help to the campaign.  Among other things, the association received thousands of Bacon flyers and yard signs from the campaign for distribution; invited Senator Bacon to make a personal appearance before distributing materials; and discussed the possibility of teachers’ volunteer efforts with Bacon.       


The CEA is almost certain to appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.  “It’s a huge issue in terms of what sort of speech organizations can have with their members and with the public,” said association attorney Mark Grueskin.  If the ruling is upheld, the likely punishment would be a fine in the amount of two to five times the value of the illegal help provided to the Bacon campaign, in this case anywhere from $70,000 to $175,000.  Grueskin, however, interprets Amendment 27 as barring the imposition of financial penalties.  The status of Senator Bacon, who represents the Fort Collins area, will be unaffected regardless of outcome. 


The irony of the case is that the 2002 law has not done what its backers, including the Washington-based nonprofit group Common Cause, intended for it to do:  “Get big money out of politics.”  Both candidates in this year’s governor’s race, Bill Ritter (D) and Bob Beauprez (R), are setting records for fundraising, each taking in more than $2 million in contributions.  Supporters have managed to skirt around Amendment 27 by making heavy donations to so-called “527” groups that, by law, are not controlled by candidates and are exempt from most regulation.  This, of course, opens the door to a barrage of misleading TV campaign ads over which neither candidate has any control.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way – and apparently that bit of wisdom applies to unions as well as other political players.  (Rocky Mountain News, 7/21/06; 7/22/06).