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Rules Made to Be Broken

Confusion reigns on Amendment 15, and the secretary of state takes heat for her campaign-finance edicts.

Democrats and Republicans united? Campaign reformers and fat-cat insiders agreeing on something political? It's true. Button-down conservatives and ponytailed liberals are coalescing around one common theme: Secretary of State Vikki Buckley is doing a rotten job of interpreting Amendment 15.

"She's dropped the ball completely," says Pete Smith of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and one of the original drafters of Amendment 15. Approved by voters last November by a two-to-one margin, the amendment limits the total amount of money a candidate can spend in a race and the amount an individual or a political action committee can donate to a candidate or spend on a particular issue. It also forces candidates to make more detailed disclosures about their donations.

While some oppose the very idea of the amendment, opponents and proponents alike are lambasting Buckley's performance since the measure became law. At issue is a set of rules issued recently by Buckley that are supposed to show political types exactly how to follow the new law. The rules will apply not only to the half-dozen or so people running for governor, but to every candidate for every state office, including all 100 legislative seats.

"I find the draft rules incredibly confusing, and that's frustrating," says Smith. He says his first clue that the rules were inadequate came when he picked up the packet and found how few pages it contained. The proposed rules have fewer words than the amendment those rules are supposed to interpret.

"The idea of the rules is to clarify the amendment," Smith says, "and these do the opposite."

House Majority Leader Norma Anderson, a Republican from Lakewood, is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Smith. Like him, however, she found the rules lacking. "It didn't answer any of my questions," she says.

Anderson says her lawyer disagrees with some of the few pronouncements Buckley has made about the arcana of the rules, leaving Anderson to wonder what she should do--follow the advice of her lawyer, or that of Buckley. If she chooses incorrectly, she could be criminally liable for any mistakes under another provision of Amendment 15.

Buckley says she understands that her critics have concerns. "But what they're all looking for, there is no way you can put in the statute," she says. "The legislature is going to have to address many of these concerns."

To her credit, the Republican Buckley apparently has not tried to interpret the rules in favor of one party. But critics say her directions are confusing and that they may stem from a fear that whatever she does will be reversed in court. Already, several groups are suing to block parts of Amendment 15.

"It's not fun when you have lawsuits nipping at your heels," says Rick Daily, a lawyer whom Gail Schoettler hired to interpret the Amendment 15 laws as she runs for governor. "Some people have said what [Buckley] does will be put under a microscope, and others say it will be put through a meat grinder. Either way, it's not an enviable position."

Daily says that at a recent seminar Buckley gave on Amendment 15, the secretary of state answered about a third of the questions incorrectly. A clear set of rules would have helped, he says. "We could have tamed this tiger," adds Daily. "We didn't. We lost the opportunity to improve campaign finance in the state."

Longtime GOP campaign organizers like Steve Durham also are critical. "I just don't think she's done a good job on this," Durham says. And he predicts that the controversial law will become "a sword, rather than a shield" for most candidates.

There has already been some evidence of that. GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Owens was attacked recently for the way he switched money from his exploratory committee to his campaign committee. Owens campaign manager Rob Fairbank says he was blindsided by the attack. "We've been trying to follow it to the letter," Fairbank says. "This is something the voters passed by a wide margin, and we want to follow it, but it's beyond understanding."

Fairbank predicts that many other candidates will come under fire sooner or later because the rules are so muddy as to allow a wide set of interpretations. "The reality is that you've got five different candidates for governor doing five different things," Fairbank says.

While it may be used as a sword against some candidates, Amendment 15 could be the grim reaper's scythe for Buckley's political life. Because she has upset Republicans along with Democrats, her mishandling of the issue may cost her the job she won as a political newcomer in 1994. Her only political experience before winning the seat was twenty years in the secretary of state's office, where she started as a typist. Some insiders say she's in danger of losing the support of GOP campaigners crucial to setting up a statewide campaign.

"She's a rudderless ship with no sailors on board," says one veteran GOP campaigner.

Gary Hickmon, executive director of the state GOP, disagrees and says he thinks she will be re-elected. Hickmon says Buckley's handling of Amendment 15 won't cost her support "because she's done enough good for the office overall."

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