Colorado voters once again face a daunting list of arcanely worded questions barreling toward their mailboxes starting Oct. 9. By Election Day on Nov. 3, the state wants answers to 11 questions that could shape the policies of our state for the unmeasurable future.
The matters fill the scope: wolves on the Western Slope, rewriting the property tax formula, a late-term abortion ban, taxing nicotine, offering paid leave, reducing income tax rates and awarding Colorado’s future Electoral College votes, respectively.
That’s not all. There’s casino gambling, voter approval over major government fees and leniency on charitable bingos and raffles.
They share the ballot, however, with the candidates for president, U.S. Senate and 83 of the 100 seats in the state legislature.
And while the ballot issues don’t attract the kind of big-money donors the candidates do, it’s not nothing: collectively Colorado issue committees raised almost half of Jed Clampett’s fortune — $10.7 million — from 28 respective issue committees between early June to early September, according to the most current financial disclosures.
“We lose so much in the attention of a presidential election, and with all the weirdness in this year, I’m afraid some important matters are going to get lost in the shuffle,” said Tom Wells, a voting rights activist from Denver who is waging an online campaign to raise awareness of lower-ticket issues in November.
“The right to vote is a gift and it’s your voice. If you don’t vote, you don’t have anything to say.”
Wells is urging people on the right and left to consume the state’s Blue Book guide on ballot questions, but also to consult voter guides from organizations and think tanks they trust.
“Don’t be gullible, but don’t be uninformed,” Wells said. “Understanding the world you live in is the price of freedom and the way you honor the sacrifice of men and women who fought and died and our forefathers who made this country great.”
Last year, voters were asked just two questions: to put a tax on sports betting, which passed, and give up an occasional tax rebate to pay for transportation and education, which didn’t. The year before, voters statewide considered a whopping 13. Five passed.
Getting measures on the ballot is hard enough: 124,632 valid signatures from registered voters. Advocates have to collect, usually, at least 160,000 to account for duplicate signatures, nonvoters and jokesters who sign names like Bullwinkle J. Moose. That’s usually followed by a million-dollar campaign on the major Sisyphean issues.
Tax increases, for examples, haven’t passed statewide since the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights joined the state Constitution nearly 30 year ago, unless the hike was dealt to niche products, such as marijuana, gambling, tobacco or other user fees.
Since Colorado’s 1876 constitution was first amended in 1880, Colorado voters have sought to change the state constitution 352 times, and succeeded just 165 times. Voters have been asked directly to change state statutes 112 times and agreed just 44, according to legislative records.
The Colorado ballot, then, averages 3.4 asks per year.
Broadly, the subject of taxation accounts for the most ballot questions, 72 (with three more this year), followed by state government with 49 and elections with 46. By the by, gambling is 9 out of 23, but pot is 3 for 4 on statewide voting.
The ballot is long this year. Chris Brown, the policy and research director for the Common Sense Institute, a business-driven public policy institute, wondered out loud to Colorado Politics and ballot policy experts about ballot fatigue this year, and whether the costly, impactful issues will get the cool consideration they deserve in a landscape of pandemic, politics and economic crises.
The state’s Blue Book analysis — 90 pages this year — details each of the ballot measures and has been sent to registered voters.
Brown and fellow researchers at the institute have applied a numerical analysis — and not a political spin — to most of the ballot questions.
Here’s Colorado Politics’ analysis of the highest profile questions this year, and a summary of the rest:
Proposition 115 took on a new emphasis on Aug. 18, with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a defender of abortion rights and an icon in the preservation of the 1973 landmark ruling Roe v. Wade.
The question facing voters in November is whether Colorado joins the majority of states with limits on the period in which an abortion is legal. Proposition 115 sets the limit at 22 weeks.
The day after Ginsburg’s death, the opponents of 115 invoked her name in their cause.
“In light of this tragic loss, the stakes in November are greater than ever, particularly when it comes to abortion rights. We will no longer be able to rely on the Supreme Court to uphold Roe v. Wade — and should Proposition 115 pass, abortion access as we know it will cease to exist,” the No on 115 campaign said in a statement. “If ever there was a time to double down and stop this dangerous and deceptive abortion ban in its tracks, now is the time.”
The latest Colorado ballot question is not a full step toward outlawing abortion as previous measures have done, but it’s not a step activists on the other side are willing to yield.
The measure is hotly opposed by the usual abortion rights’ opponents, including Planned Parenthood and COBALT (formerly NARAL Colorado), the ACLU and a number of left-leaning religious leaders affiliated with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.
Their fundraising to defeat the measure, $603,906, is more than five times the war chest of those trying to pass it.
Backlit by the national debate over a new supreme court justice, this question just became a more of a political street fight than it already was.
Christian conservatives, Catholics and other entrenched abortion opponents are leading the march to pass the measure. The Due Date Too Late campaign to pass it is funded in part by the Coalition for Women and Children, and its registered agent is Republican activist Marge Klein.
“Late-term abortion is dangerous and it poses a substantial and medically documented immediate risk to the health and life of the woman. Abortion mortality increases 38% for each additional week of gestation,” the campaign argues, in response to the measure’s need. “Women are more likely to die from late abortion (after 22 weeks) than from childbirth. Also, research/studies show that women suffer emotional trauma and psychological pain after having an abortion.”
Even if most Americans support abortion, polls show a marked drop off for abortions later in the pregnancy, the campaign notes. A Gallup poll in May indicated that just 29% of Americans thought abortion should be legal in any circumstance.
The proposal would bar abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy, 5½ months of nine-month term. Abortions after that point would only be allowed to immediately protect the life of the mother, but not the risk of other health problems, incest or rape.
A violation would be a misdemeanor and a fine up to $5,000, but it could cost a physician his or her license.
Senior Rabbi Joe Black of the Temple Emmanuel in Denver said it was not the government’s role to intercede in matters of faith or a woman’s decisions made in consultation with her doctor, her family and her faith.
He knows firsthand what that means. Doctors told him and his wife their second child carried a fatal, incurable genetic disease, and they made an “agonizing” decision to end the pregnancy, he said.
“As difficult as it was to say goodbye to the hopes and dreams of a second baby, the thought of having to care for and bury a suffering child who would die a horrific death was unpalatable,” said the rabbi.
He said it was critical to keep abortion safe and legal for families like his, which is not an encouragement of abortion but the acknowledgment of an unfortunate but sometimes necessary medical procedure.
“Proposition 115, if passed, would be devastating to any couple in our situation,” Black said. “And while the facts about the need to keep abortion safe and legal are quite clear, the language and obfuscation in this ballot initiative is anything but.”
Republicans, primarily, are driving the issue.
To remove any doubt, Ken Buck, the uber-conservative congressman from Windsor and chair of the Colorado Republican Party, sent out a congratulatory statement to the Due Date Too Late campaign when it submitted its petitions for the ballot in May.
“This team completed a monumental task in the face of difficult odds and a global pandemic,” said the candidate up for reelection in the 4th Congressional District. “I’m proud of their work and this vitally important mission.”
In the same statement, however, Buck dubbed it “a strong bipartisan issue.”
The effort is backed by evangelical leaders and the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.
“This is a great opportunity to limit the assault on children in the womb,” said Deacon Geoff Bennett, the vice president of parish and community relations at Catholic Charities, which includes Respect Life Denver. “Colorado has allowed the killing of the unborn up until birth since 1967.”
Abortion Access for All, which opposes Proposition 115, raised the most of any Colorado committee this year, $3.4 million, with various Planned Parenthood chapters from around the country kicking in about half of it.
The group also has endorsements from top Democratic officials: House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, state Rep. James Coleman of Denver, Attorney General Phil Weiser, Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca, state Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll and others.
Abortion issues have been on the Colorado ballot eight times now, and failed six.
This year marks the fourth time since 2008 that Colorado voters have weighed in on an abortion-related question; three times in a row about declaring a fetus a lawful human being with protected rights — redefining “person” to include “unborn human beings,” called personhood for short.
In recent votes, it hasn’t even been close. Amendment 67 in 2014 failed with 65% against it, which overperformed compared to Initiative 62 that failed with 71% opposition in 2010 and Amendment 48 that failed against 73% two years before that.
Stances with wolves
Gray wolves were hunted out of existence across the West by the 1940s, when they disappeared from Colorado.
Now state and national environmental causes are driving Proposition 114 to reintroduce the wild canines to the Western Slope, hopeful that Colorado’s liberal voters on the Front Range will agree, even if many of the cities ban pit bulls in their neighborhoods.
They contend that restoring wolves to the wild will allow them to gobble up the overpopulation of deer and elk, who congregate in streams, gobble up vegetation and stir up silt. Wolves would move them on, and take out the sick and elderly in the herd.
Colorado, with its lean to the left in recent elections, is critical to the spread of the wolf across the West. Republican leaders in Utah have made clear they don’t want the canines in their backyard, even passing a resolution in opposition to Colorado’s efforts last spring.
Eleven Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced in Arizona and New Mexico in 1998, but the Center for Biodiversity estimates there are only 163 wolves surviving in the wild there as of last year, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service..
Rob Edward, a volunteer who is president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the group behind the ballot issue, said the vote is coming at a time of societal change.
“This new decade is already shaping up to be one where longstanding wrongs are redressed,” he said. “Those who came before us felt righteous in their war against wolves. We are here today to say that such oppression has no place in America.”
He said the public, more than ever, is mindful of science.
“Science tells us that wolves are important,” he said. “Science also tells us that it is possible for working ranches to coexist with wolves as part of the landscape. Science tells us that returning wolves can help restore balance to Colorado’s wild places. Colorado is excited to show the rest of the West what it looks like to welcome wolves home with open arms. Future generations expect us to get this right.”
Wolves are still an endangered species, though the question is under litigation, so killing one will be a big deal by the time state and federal penalties add up. In Minnesota, for instance, home to a healthy-sized population of wolves, killing one for any reason other than self-defense can net up to six months in jail and fines up to $25,000.
Opposition is led by farmers, ranchers and rural county commissions, who note the state wildlife commission has voted down the reintroduction in the past for good reason.
“The proposal to introduce wolves in Colorado might sound nice, but it doesn’t stand up to the least bit of scrutiny,” said Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau. “Only in a crazy year like 2020 would voters be asked to spend millions of dollars to forcibly introduce a species that is already here. Parks and Wildlife receives more than 100 reports of wolf sightings a year.”
“Now officers have confirmed a pack of wolves in Colorado, and they are now having pups! Moreover, wildlife biologists at Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service don’t support forcing wolves into Colorado and have declined to do so four times in the past. Amid a global pandemic and economic ruin, let’s work on getting back to normal, not spending scarce taxpayer dollars trying to do what nature has already done itself and against the advice of our wildlife professionals.”
This past session, however, state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, proposed legislation that would stall reintroduction until 2025, until it could be determined if existing wolves in the state could constitute a viable, permanent population and the state has a better handle on how much taxpayers could be on the hook for.
It went nowhere.
The wolves appear to have the public in its pack.
In January a group of natural resources researchers at Colorado State University studied public views on wolf reintroduction.
An accompanying statewide online survey of 734 Coloradans in August of last year found statewide support for wolf reintroduction: 84.9% of Front Range residents, 79.8% of Western Slope residents and 79.3% of Eastern Plains folks.
“We found that an estimated 28.6% of Coloradans would expect wolves to impact them positively, 11.7% would expect wolves to impact them negatively, and 59.7% would expect no impact,” the report stated.
Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment is a lot like the quote usually mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain: “Everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it.” Amendment B would do something about it.
The question gets rid of the constitutional constraint that requires adjustments to maintain 55% of the state’s property taxes come from commercial uses and 45% from homes.
A yes vote locks in current assessment rates for individual home and business owner, instead of regular adjustments in service to the ratio. Any future increases would require another vote of the people.
As a result, Colorado has some of the lowest residential property taxes in the nation — advocates for schools and local governments argue unsustainably low.
Amendment B isn’t a tax hike, at least not directly or immediately. The assessment rates would remain at their current levels, but homeowners might lose out on it going lower in the future.
Kent Thiry, the recently retired leader of the health care conglomerate Davita, is working on repealing the constitutional formula.
Thiry is the chairman of the Say Yes on Amendment B campaign, and it’s hard to bet against his track record. He’s led successful ballot efforts in Colorado to reestablish the presidential primary, open Colorado’s primaries to unaffiliated voters and put congressional and legislative redistricting in the hands of independent, professional boards instead of politicians.
While homeowners might think they’re getting a break, they’re also helping pay the higher property taxes paid by businesses, who pass on costs.
The Gallagher Amendment was adopted by voters in 1982 with the idea of controlling taxes on homes and maintaining a 55-45 ratio, but the ripple effects have been dire for businesses paying more and more as home prices on the Front Range climb higher and higher.
As a result, the tax rate on a home assessment rate of 21% back then is 7.15% today, explained JoAnn Groff, the property tax administrator for the state of Colorado. Meanwhile, commercial property rates have quadrupled as a result.
Because the ratio is calculated statewide, rural towns and counties that don’t have those kinds of commercial property or residential values to tax are left holding an empty bag to pay for services, unless they can float a mill levy to do that.
The original plan was for local governments to adjust their mill levies to balance things out, but that changed in 1992 when voters passed the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which sent every tax hike back to the electorate.
A recession poses additional risks to local governments and local services, including fire, water and cultural resources, since residential tax rates won’t automatically rise to maintain the ratio, leaving another hole in a budget that’s already leaking in a down economy.
Residential rates are projected to drop to 5.88%. If Gallagher is repealed, that rate will stay at 7.15%.
“Put simply, this is absolutely a tax increase,” said Michael Fields, who is chairing the committee to oppose the amendment.
Civic coalitions and chambers of commerce, as well as Club 20 on the Western Slope and Action 22 on the Eastern Plains, are supporting repeal, as well as the National Federation of Independent Business, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Association of Homebuilders, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Business Roundtable.
Across the way, are some of those organizations’ usual allies: The Independence Institute in Denver, Keep Property Taxes Low, the Centennial institute in Lakewood, as well as the Colorado Apartment Association and Colorado Counties Inc.
Thiry characterized the artificial formula as an unnecessary recipe for chaos, which both sides have generally agreed needs fixes. He also sees it as a local control issue, with metro Denver largely dictating policy and services to rural communities by dominating a statewide equation.
“It’s skewing and moving dollars around in a way nobody wanted, nobody voted for,” he said of the constant budget adjustments public officials make in service to the arbitrary formula.
“There’s an awful lot of work to be done and these Gallagher adjustments all the time, and readjustments, is a source of tremendous energy loss,” he said, explaining that the uneven playing field for businesses hurts the economy, which in turn hurts all Coloradans.
Fields, the executive director of Colorado Rising State Action, contends repealing Gallagher would only lead to even higher property taxes for without fixing the real issue: the state’s obligation to back-fill school district funding. He’s long said that’s a job for the legislature, and he says the Gallagher ban as misguided.
He said it’s real money for low-income and fixed-income people when tax collection rise because of their neighborhood. When he was a teacher earning $33,000 a year, an increase in rent was a life-altering occurrence, he said.
“We pay more in property taxes every year,” he said, because a lower assessment rate doesn’t erase fast-rising property values.
Fields said there’s no gift to businesses in the repeal, either. “There’s no drop in that 29% assessment rate that’s still going to be there. Businesses do matter, but I think people matter, too.”
He said if seniors’ home values go up, “It doesn’t add any more money into their pockets to pay these higher taxes. I think we need to have a discussion about the business assessment rate, but this repeal doesn’t do that.”
Taunia Hottman, the campaign spokesperson for Yes on Amendment B, said other conservatives are on board. Thiry, though he’s been unaffiliated most of his adult life, briefly ran for governor as a Republican in 2017.
“Conservatives are coming on board in big numbers because Gallagher is an unmitigated disaster for Colorado’s small businesses, manufacturers, farmers and ranchers,” she said. “With all due respect to Mr. Fields, it’s a little hard to say you’re a defender of a free enterprise system while blindly supporting an obsolete formula. Especially one that crushes small businesses at a time these local businesses are literally fighting for their lives.”
The measure also was endorsed by former Colorado Republican chairman and the party’s senior statesman, Dick Wadhams, as well as former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, the former president of the University of Colorado.
Worth noting: A Gallagher repeal in 2003 failed 78% to 22%.
Taxing and spending
Amendment B isn’t the only way Coloradans are fiddling with government revenue this election.
Conservatives want a tax cut.
A pantheon of Republican stars aligned behind Proposition 116 to lower the income tax rate from 4.63% to 4.55%, which proponents say will spur the economic recovery and make up for the lost revenue from less taxation on earnings.
Though tax cuts are the highest calling of any good fiscal conservative, the measure made its way to the ballot first as a counter to a proposal by more progressive groups to offer a smaller tax cut for most Coloradans and a harder hit on the wealthier folks, a campaign dubbed The Fair Tax.
The tax would have netted about $2 billion a year for the state by lowering the rate to 4.58% for those earning less than $250,000 and raising it to 7% on earnings above that up to $500,000. Half the windfall would have gone to education and the other half to support transportation, higher education, public health or housing, said its backers, The Fair Tax Colorado and the Colorado Fiscal Institute.
Conservatives countered with The Real Fair Tax, which became Proposition 116 to give everyone a tax cut. The former failed to qualify for the ballot, the latter didn’t.
The committee Energize Our Economy has the support of the Independence Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the GOP campaign operation Unite for Colorado.
Opponents say the measure is preposterous as Colorado’s budget and state services are facing deep cuts, because of the recession, without taking out more.
“If Proposition 116 passes, our elected legislators — who have already slashed 25% from our state budget due to the COVID-19 recession and must make similar levels of cuts next year — will have to figure out how to cut an additional $154 million from the things we all rely on,” Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver, which supported the Fair Tax but opposes the Real Fair Tax, wrote in a Colorado Politics op-ed.
“While this amount may sound small in the context of a multibillion-dollar budget, their options will add insult to injury for many of us. The additional amount they’ll need to cut is the same amount as it costs to pay for the Senior Homestead Exemption, a property tax relief program that helps many older Coloradans stay in their homes.”
Separate, but connected by common interests, Proposition 117 would requires voter approval for new state government enterprises with fee revenue over $100 million in the first five years.
Fields and Colorado Rising State Action convened many of the same allies behind 117: the Voter Approval of Fees committee, the Independence Institute, Americans for Prosperity in Colorado, the Centennial Institute and the state Republican Party.
Likewise, the pushback is coming from the people behind the original Fair Tax proposal and the oil-and-gas opposition group Earthworks Action Fund.
Paid family leave
When some causes seem tapped out at the statehouse, they head to the ballot. Such is the case with Proposition 118, the proposed paid family and medical leave insurance program.
Democrats at the Capitol have tried and failed six times to pass a program they’ve dangled in front of progressive constituents and low-wage earners for years. Until the past two years, the had Republicans controlling the Senate to blame their failure on.
For the last two years, however, Democrats couldn’t agree among themselves after they took control of the House, Senate and governor’s office in the 2018 election. Polis has been one of its chief skeptics, insisting that any state program pay its own way without being subsidized by taxpayers.
High enrollment could quickly drive the fund into insolvency, however.
Proposition 118 would allow an employee to take up to 12 weeks off for an illness, to care for a loved one or to bond with a child up to $1,100 a week, starting at 0.9% of the wages in premiums. The employer would pick up half the cost.
The program would especially be a benefit for low-wage workers who are most likely not able to get any sick time off without losing wages.
Proponents, led by women’s advocacy groups and anti-poverty organizations, say it helps families and makes a positive difference in child development, while protecting jobs and allowing workers to care for their families without jeopardizing the financial well-being or job security.
The measure is supported by Colorado Families First, which is supported by the Colorado Fiscal Institute.
Opponents, mainly business groups, say it puts a new financial and regulatory burden on small businesses, because mounting costs drive hiring decisions. The insurance program also takes money out of the pocket of people who will never use significant medical or family leave.
Chris Brown, the policy and research director at the Common Sense Institute, looked at existing data to make some projections, estimating the employees’ share of the premiums would be between $740 million to $1.7 million in a year and employers would cover $580 million to $1.4 billion.
Under the lowest cost scenario, Brown said the program would be in trouble if it had a claims rate above 6.2% for employees who took off an average of 9½ weeks, “then the contributions are not significant enough to cover the benefit.”
A state employee benefit insurance program won’t be cheap, either.
Legislative analysts estimated that if the measure passes, the state would have to spend $3.2 million next year to launch the program Then the cost would jump to $48.6 million the following year to staff, implement and administer the program and pay the state’s share to cover its eligible employees.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and The Colorado Chamber of Commerce are the leading opponents to ballot question. The state chamber has opposed most but worked on some solutions at the state Capitol, including serving in the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Task Force created as a compromise after the 2019 session.
“It’s disappointing that interest groups have chosen to pursue a billion-dollar program in the middle of an economic crisis,” Loren Furman, the state chamber’s senior vice president of state and federal relations, said. “The business community came to the negotiating table in good faith to find a thoughtful legislative solution, willing to compromise in order to strike the right balance for a family and medical leave program that works for Colorado.”
The rest of the questions
Proposition EE would raise the taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products and create a tax on vaping products to raise money for K-12 education, rural schools, affordable housing, eviction assistance, tobacco education and health care. The issue committee behind it has collected $1.8 million since June 25, most of it from Gary Community Investments, philanthropist Stacy Schusterman, who owns Samson Energy, and Pat Stryker, the philanthropist, progressive activist and heir to the Stryker Corp. medical device company.
Amendment 77 would allow town voters in Central City, Blackhawk and Cripple Creek to decide whether to do away with the $100 betting limit and add more games, with 88% of the extra tax revenue supporting job training and student retention programs at community colleges and the rest to local governments. Local Choice Colorado, funded by casinos, has raised $2.2 million, the second-most behind those seeking to defeat the 22-week abortion ban. Opponents worry lifting betting limits will worsen the cost of gambling addiction.
Proposition 113 would pledge Colorado’s future Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote, the winner in all 50 states. Polis signed the provision into law last year after it was delivered by Democratic majorities. Voters have to ratify it. The measure is supported by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Colorado, Fair Vote and other leading Colorado progressive groups. Opponents say Colorado is giving away its votes for president to more populous states such as California, Florida and New York City. The measure is opposed by chambers of commerce, as well as the regional coalitions Club 20, Action 22 and PRO 15.
Amendment 76 would change the state constitution to clarify only legal citizens can vote, largely a symbolic political gesture. The constitution currently says, “every citizen” can vote. The amendment changes it to “only a citizen.” The proponent is Colorado Citizen Voters, which is supported by Citizen Voters, a Florida-based organization founded by Trump adviser John Loudon, who has collected millions in donations to run the issue in states.
Amendment C was referred to the ballot by the state Legislature. It would allow nonprofit organizations that have operated in Colorado for at least three years to apply for a bingo-raffle license, decreasing it from five, and allows games to be run by workers who are not members of the organization who can earn up to minimum wage.