Members of Congress can legally send mailers to constituents informing them of critical votes on issues of interest like wildfires. But in an election year, could this kind of advertising on the taxpayer’s dime be construed as an ethical and responsible use of public money?
That’s what some have asked after glossy mailers were sent to constituents of the 3rd Congressional District by Rep. Scott Tipton’s office. Attracting special interest was a 9-inch by 12-inch double-sided flier that arrived in local mailboxes this week and had a headline of “Colorado Wildfire Update” on the card’s front.
That was followed by a quote from Tipton that said: “We cannot thank the dedicated firefighters and volunteers on the ground enough for working to suppress these fires. I will continue to work to promote policies that will create healthy forests and prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future.”
In an election year, the use of taxpayer money for this mailer should be questioned, Linda Delaney of Steamboat Springs wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to the editor.
She pointed to a disclaimer on the card that said, “This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.”
Kelsey Mix, communications director for Rep. Tipton, said that this is common practice by “we and every member of Congress” to send mailers on issues and to solicit feedback.
“Not all constituents visit the website, so this is another way to update on major issues and get feedback from them on those issues, as well as share information on resources like constituent services,” Mix said Thursday by email.
“We usually send one to two per year and topics have included constituent services, healthcare, veterans issues, tax reform and public lands management and wildfire prevention in the past,” she wrote.
“They are sent district-wide and not based on any party affiliations; legally they cannot be targeted politically. Before being sent, all mass communications are reviewed and approved by the bipartisan House Franking Commission,” Mix added.
Diane Mitsch Bush, the Democratic challenger for the 3rd Congressional District seat,said via email that while the congressman’s “use of ‘franking’ is technically legal, it is conspicuously close to the election. So it does raise questions about his intent.” Mitsch Bush defeated Karl Hanlon of Carbondale and Arn Menconi in the May primary.
According to Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams’ office, because Tipton is a federal candidate, this is not an area covered by the state’s campaign finance laws.
Rachel Richards, Pitkin County commissioner, said she was struck by the flyer when it arrived in her mailbox recently.
“It probably dances on the edge of thin ice. The piece sure looks like campaign mail with all the high glossy effects … but it is a federal ethics question and that process for review is out of my area of expertise.”
Richards, who has served as an elected official in Pitkin County and the city of Aspen said she has seen government “report cards” distributed that highlight a full board’s achievements and how they used tax dollars. She added that she she didn’t recall anything specific to individual races when she was a candidate.
She also pointed out that sometimes press announcements are made during campaign periods but aren’t deliberately timed to garner votes.
“Not all business can stop for three to four months every two years during elections, especially considering budget decisions are made during the fall,” Richards said.
But she did point out that, “In general, most municipalities, counties and governments avoid doing any mailings during election time-periods.”
Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill could not be reached for comment Thursday.
District spans rural and urban
Tipton spokeswoman Mix did not answer how much the mailers were estimated to cost, nor how many were mailed to residents of the 3rd Congressional District, which spans rural parts of southern and western Colorado and locally includes Pitkin and Garfield counties and part of Eagle County. The district also encompasses the cities of Grand Junction, Durango and Pueblo.
In the 2016 race for Congress, Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, commanded 54.6 percent of the vote to 40.3 percent for runner-up Gail Schwartz of Crested Butte and formerly Snowmass Village. A Libertarian candidate, Gaylon Kent, earned 5.1 percent. All told, 374,037 votes were cast in this 2016 congressional race.
According to information from the office House of Representatives website (https://www.house.gov/the-house-explained/open-government/statement-of-disbursements)in the section on “franked” mail, “Postage expenses of specific pieces of mail sent out by members are reimbursable in accordance with the regulations contained in the Members’ Congressional Handbook.”
The appearance of the glossy fliers during a campaign season clearly rankled letter writer Delaney, who wrote that Tipton was attempting to “extol his efforts ‘fighting to prevent wildfires’ or ‘reforming taxes.’ Representative Tipton is up for re-election in November, so of course he wants to contact the 250,000-300,000 households in the 3rd Congressional District to toot his own horn,” she stated.
Challenger Mitsch Bush wrote, “Taxpayers generally do not approve of their hard-earned dollars being used this way. They want town halls where real people (not just big donors) can share their ideas, opinions, problems and solutions. When I am in Congress, I will spend time in our district listening to constituents, not talking at them, on their dime, about bills that have already passed.”