For 1st time, Routt County elections have contribution limits
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For the first time in state history, lawmakers have set limits on the contributions that people and groups can make to county elections.
House Bill 1007, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law Friday, will impact future Routt County election contributions, which have previously been uncapped.
Supporters, including local commissioners, see it as a way to improve oversight on county elections and push the emphasis to the candidates themselves rather than the size of their coffers. Opponents view it as government overreach, which restricts a person’s voice in local democracies.
Under the new law, the maximum aggregate contributions a person may make to a candidate for county office is $1,250 for primary and general elections. Small donor committees may contribute up to $12,500, and political parties may donate a maximum of $22,125 for the election cycle.
The bill affects the offices of county commissioner, county clerk and recorder, sheriff, coroner, treasurer, assessor and surveyor. It should have the greatest impact on county commissioner elections, which tend to constitute the most expensive campaign budgets.
An analysis of the two most recent commissioner races, which resulted in the election of commissioners Tim Corrigan and Beth Melton, revealed several individual contributions totaling more than $1,250. Those would have been restricted under the new law.
Individual donations comprise the vast majority of funds in county elections.
Corrigan received $28,491 in contributions for his 2016 re-election campaign. Of that total, two contributions exceeded the new limit: $4,000 from his brother Michael Corrigan and $1,380 from county resident Rodger Steen. Corrigan’s money-raising efforts more than doubled his 2012 campaigns, in which he raised $13,860.
In the latest election, Corrigan said he felt pressured to keep pace with his opponent Bob Dapper, who received $51,255 in contributions. That total included a $4,000 donation from local business owner Patrick O’Winter, as well as a $1,500 check from county resident William Butler.
Such high-dollar contributions are becoming increasingly common in Corrigan’s eyes.
“It feels like these numbers are going up at an exponential rate,” he said,
In light of that trend and his last election, Corrigan supports the monetary limits set by the new law.
“I don’t think it should cost $50,000 to run an effective campaign in this county,” he said.
Instead, he believes candidates should invest more in grassroots efforts like knocking on people’s doors and attending public events.
“This is a small enough community,” he said. “We have the ability to go out and talk to our neighbors and get the word out that way.”
On the contrary, Geneva Taylor of Routt County Republicans sees the new law as an infringement on personal freedoms.
As a political party, Routt County Republicans donates about $1,000 to every Republican candidate hoping to fill county offices, according to Taylor. The law would not restrict those contributions.
Taylor also gives individual donations in county races, and she doesn’t approve of the government limiting her support.
“I wish they’d just quit taking our rights away from us,” she said of state lawmakers.
But past incidents have highlighted concerns among county residents about who contributes to campaigns and how much.
Commissioner Beth Melton came under fire during her race last year for allegedly accepting PAC money. Her opponent, incumbent Cari Hermacinski, claimed Melton’s online contributions made through ActBlue constituted donations from a political action committee.
Melton raised $31,143 for her campaign, outpacing Hermacinski’s $24,106 in contributions. None of the funds Melton received surpassed the new limits, while two individual donations to her Republican opponent exceeded the $1,250 ceiling.
An analysis from the Steamboat Pilot & Today determined Melton used ActBlue as a “conduit for small-dollar donations,” which are not considered PAC donations because they are made by individuals.
Nevertheless, the incident underscored the importance of keeping local elections fair and transparent, which the new law aims to do.
“I have been supportive of this from the beginning,” Melton said. “It just helps make sure that elections are focused on the people.”
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