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Democrats want more disclosure of campaign advertising, but dark money remains an issue

Colorado is one of only 10 states that don’t require all campaign ads to identify the sponsor

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Colorado is taking a step toward more disclosure of campaign advertising.

The state Senate is expected to approve legislation Tuesday that would mandate more disclosure from political committees that send mailers or air commercials in an election year.

Senate Bill 68 requires disclosure of how much is spent on communication that mentions a candidate for the entire period between the primary and general election if the spending totals more than $1,000.

But it stops short of requiring any nonprofit groups that run advertising to disclose their donors, leaving a major dark-money problem unaddressed.

Colorado is one of only 10 states that don’t require all campaign ads to say who the sponsor is, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.

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Right now, the spending disclosure is only required 30 days before the late-June primary and 60 days before the November general election. That leaves a gap of almost two months when nonprofit political groups can praise or attack candidates in mailers, TV commercials and other advertising without saying how much they paid for them.

They don’t even have to identify what group paid for the ads, as The Colorado Sun reported in October. Most groups do include “paid by” lines on campaign literature, though.

The law only requires political committees, such as super PACs, to disclose their spending on advertising, as well as identifying who paid for them on the actual ads. But nonprofit groups often praise or criticize a candidate in ads without revealing how much they spent, where their money came from or even what group produced a mailer or other campaign message.

At least two mailers from July that supported Republican candidates for the state Senate but didn’t say who paid for them.

In addition, Colorado Economic Leadership, a nonprofit affiliated with business group Colorado Concern, ran TV ads supporting Republican state Senate candidates in August, and Colorado Values Project, a nonprofit that the Sun could never reach, sent mailers in August supporting Democratic Senate candidates and opposing Republican candidates.

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Because those ads and mailers didn’t suggest voting for or against a candidate, the spending didn’t have to be disclosed. But that would change under the legislation from Sens. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, and Jack Tate, R-Centennial.

Zenzinger said there are estimates that $1.9 million worth of undisclosed money was spent in the 2016 election, the last time she ran. “This is an issue that I heard in my last campaign,” Zenzinger said. “I had a lot of voters who were very frustrated” at not knowing who was behind campaign flyers.

The bill won approval on a voice vote with a few dissenters without a debate Monday.

Republican Sen. Vicki Marble, of Fort Collins, voted against the measure in a committee, saying that some nonprofit groups are concerned about it.

It appears that Colorado would be among few states to close the “window” between the primary and general election, requiring disclosure of all spending on messages mentioning candidates during the entire time between the primary and general elections.

“Typically, what you’re looking at is something similar to the federal windows, which is 60 days before the general and 30 days before the primary,” said Pete Quist, research director for the National Institute on Money in Politics.

The lack of disclosure for donors to political nonprofit groups is one area that Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold and others would like to address later this session.

Griswold said she’s working to craft some sort of donor disclosure for nonprofits, which spent heavily in Colorado in 2018. “People do not believe that in a democracy you should be able to hide political giving,” she said.

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