Colorado Rural Electric Association spent electric cooperatives’ money supporting Republican politicians
By Joe Smyth | @joesmyth
The statewide association for electric cooperatives in Colorado describes its political spending as bipartisan and funded by voluntary donations, but a review of filings with the Colorado Secretary of State shows that it actually spent nearly a half million dollars last year in a failed effort to keep the Colorado state Senate in Republican hands. Some of that money came directly from electric cooperatives, not individual voluntary donations, which means the cooperatives’ customers funded a portion of the political spending.
The Colorado Rural Electric Association includes every electric cooperative in the state among its members, and it lobbies on state policy issues, as well as publishing a magazine that is distributed to co-op members and hosting events and trainings on energy issues, safety, and other topics.
But in recent years, the group has increased its spending on political campaigns, through its “Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification” political action committee and a new independent expenditure committee it created last year.
CREA describes its political spending as bipartisan and funded by “voluntary donations”
The Colorado Rural Electric Association (CREA) claims that its political spending is bipartisan, and funded by voluntary donations. For example, CREA describes its political action committee as a “bipartisan committee.” Similarly, the registration with the Colorado Secretary of State for the newer independent expenditure committee describes its purpose: “Promote the interests of cooperative electric associations by supporting or opposing candidates for state general assembly and statewide office, regardless of party affiliation, based on their policy positions on rural electricity.”
Moreover, Colorado Rural Electric Association executive director Kent Singer has described the funding for the group’s political spending as “voluntary,” and assured co-op members that “none of the dollars collected through your electric bills go to political candidates.”
In a 2016 column in the association’s magazine, Colorado Country Life, Singer wrote:
We also work with legislators from the time they are candidates, sometimes offering financial support to state legislative candidates through the co-ops’ political action committee, Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification. CARE, a bipartisan entity, operates independently from CREA with a separate governing board made up of electric co-op directors and employees elected from across the state. (Funding for CARE comes from voluntary donations.)
Singer was more explicit in a 2011 column in the same magazine: “CARE and ACRE are exclusively opt-in programs. Rest assured that none of the dollars collected through your electric bills go to political candidates.” That point was important enough for the magazine to repeat and highlight.
But a review of filings with the Colorado Secretary of State shows that while some of the funding for the co-op association’s political spending comes from voluntary donations by co-op directors and staff, hundreds of thousands of dollars have come from the co-ops themselves in recent years. Electric cooperatives don’t have shareholders, and nearly all of their revenue comes from electric bills paid by ratepayers.
The table below shows the contributions from electric cooperatives to the Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification political action committee and independent expenditure committee from 2015 through 2018.
During the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, 15 of the 22 electric cooperatives in Colorado gave money to the Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification political action committee and/or independent expenditure committee. Seven electric cooperatives did not contribute any money to those committees in recent years, according to filings with the Colorado Secretary of State. These figures only include money from the co-op itself, not voluntary contributions from individual co-op directors or staff.
According to the CREA website, “CREA actively promotes and solicits memberships” in Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification, whose “funds are maintained in the CREA office in Denver, Colorado.”
Kent Singer did not directly respond to a question about whether CREA had changed its policy in recent years to begin asking electric cooperatives to fund CARE, instead stating that “Members of CREA can choose to contribute to CARE or not, as they see fit.”
Here’s the full response from Singer:
Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification (CARE) is a nonpartisan political action committee that was formed to support candidates for the legislature who support electric co-op issues. Members of CARE elect an independent committee that oversees fundraising, endorses candidates, and authorizes expenditures. Members of CREA can choose to contribute to CARE or not, as they see fit. CARE reports contributions and expenditures to the Colorado Secretary of State in compliance with Colorado campaign finance laws. CARE supports CREA’s political advocacy efforts, one of the four key functions of the association (the others being safety/loss control; communications; and education).
Co-op political spending focused on keeping the state Senate in Republican hands
In keeping with its claims of bipartisanship, Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification endorsed both Republicans and Democrats, and its political action committee contributed token amounts to many candidates, usually $200. A website for the political action committee, careforcoops.me, appears to have been deleted earlier this year, but an archive of the website shows the list of candidates it endorsed.
But the association’s independent expenditure committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on just two close races that were considered pivotal to determining whether Republicans would maintain control of the state Senate last year.
The Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification Independent Expenditure Committee spent $467,546.67 during the 2018 election, according to the group’s finance history with the Colorado Secretary of State. A review of the group’s filings shows that nearly all of that, $444,327.96, went to political ads and other electioneering efforts supporting the Republican state Senate candidates running in District 20 and District 24, Christine Jensen and Beth Humenik.
The effort failed, and Democrats won a majority of the state Senate. Christine Jensen lost to Jessie Danielson, while Beth Humenik lost to Faith Winter, who is now Chair of the Energy and Transportation Committee.
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