Here are potential questions that could be on your November ballot in Colorado

Here are potential questions that could be on your November ballot in Colorado

We already know the six big questions that will be on your ballot to answer in the fall, from lowering the required age for state lawmakers to removing language about slavery from the state Constitution. 

But there are also nearly a dozen proposed measures— from limiting drilling and payday loans to banning the sale of smartphones to kids— that could still make it on the ballot if supporters persuade enough voters to sign petitions for them.

Not all of these are slam-dunks, though. While it’s relatively easier to get questions on ballots for voters to decide in Colorado than other states, it can still be expensive to run a successful campaign to do so— costing a quarter of a million dollars in some cases. 

The deadline to turn in signature petitions is Aug. 6, so it’s crunch time for these campaigns. Maybe you’ve already been asked to sign one. The measures also include requiring transparency in healthcare, and paying for much-needed transportation and transit projects either through a sales tax increase or, in a rival proposal, through a bond measure. Meanwhile, at least one group is airing radio ads urging people not to sign any petitions at all.

Questions can wind up on the ballot by people gathering enough signatures— 98,492 of them this year— and they face new hurdles if they seek to change the state Constitution. Because of a successful 2016 ballot measure to limit ballot measures, campaigns must gather signatures in all 35 Senate districts instead of just along the populous Front Range. Any measure that could change the Constitution also must pass with at least 55 percent of the vote. 

As voters continue to bump into signature collectors around the state, here’s an early primer of what potential questions voters might face in November. We’ll have more to report on each as Election Day nears, and as we know which questions make the cut. 

Raise the state income tax to fund public schools

Backers of this measure to raise the corporate tax and income tax rates of those making more than $150,000 per year in Colorado to fund public schools have already turned in signatures— about 70,000 more than they needed. So this measure is closer to being on the ballot already than those that follow.

Related: A $1.6 billion tax increase for Colorado education just got a lot closer to the ballot

If passed, the measure would use the money from increased taxes to “increase base per-student funding, to pay for full-day kindergarten, and to put more money toward students with special needs, such as those learning English, those with disabilities, and those who are gifted and talented,” ChalkBeat Colorado reported.

The proposal would hike the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent and the income tax rate from a sliding scale between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. People who earn $500,000 or more would pay the highest.

Arguments for it are that Colorado is 28th in the nation for per-student funding, according to the National Education Association, with individual school districts varying widely on that front. Half the state’s school districts operate four days a week to save money and Colorado needs a sustainable revenue stream to fund education equitably. Arguments against include that the state should be able to find existing money in the budget to fund schools without raising taxes.

Increased setbacks for oil-and-gas drillers

A perennial tension in certain parts of Colorado is the clash of surging residential housing growth and encroachment of oil-and-gas drilling operations near homes, neighborhoods, and schools. The current state law states that drillers must drill at least 500 feet from homes and at least double that for schools.

This measure would increase those setbacks to 2,500 feet from occupied structures, water sources, and other vulnerable areas. If this one makes the ballot, get ready for a major war being waged on your TV screens and across the airwaves from well-funded oil-and-gas interests.

Backers of this measure say drilling operations are unhealthy for those living close to them while the opposition says more than 80 percent of non-federal land would be off limits under those new setbacks. Just how far drillers should have to operate from homes became an issue in the Democratic primary for governor where the four candidates differed on their stances during a final televised debate.

Should state or local governments be required to compensate a property owner if a law or regulation reduces the fair market value of property?

This measure, if it passes, it would change the state Constitution by expanding the ways in which governments would have to pay back property owners under something called a “regulatory taking”— for example, if a government prohibits someone from building on a property thereby reducing its value. But the real reason for the measure is about the government putting limits on oil-and-gas development and limiting a property owner from selling their mineral rights because of it.

The faces of the measure are Chad Vorthmann, director of the Colorado Farm Bureau, and Michelle Smith, who is a farmer in Elbert County and who has said she relies on money from oil-and-gas developers.

“These measures are about protecting Colorado’s farmers and ranchers from extremist attempts to enforce random setback requirements for oil and natural gas development,” Vorthmann told The Sterling-Advocate in May. “While these setbacks may on their face sound reasonable, they would essentially eliminate oil and natural gas development in Colorado and strip away Colorado landowners’ right to use their land the way they wish.”

Supporters say if a government does that, property owners should be compensated, and the measure would allow for that. Opponents argue the measure could open the door to claims by property owners that reduction in fair market property value is because of a government law or regulation, which could lead to frivolous claims for payouts that would require public money to defend.

Colorado Public Radio reports that oil-and-gas interests are spending millions to help ballot measures friendly to the industry— like this one— and fight those that aren’t.

The measure already faces opposition from the state’s largest environmental group, Conservation Colorado. The group’s deputy director Jessica Goad worries about unintended consequences and calls the measure “so vague and sweeping that it essentially destroys the ability for state and local governments to protect health and safety.”

Should Colorado raise the state’s sales and use tax rate to pay for transportation?

This measure would raise the sales tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent for 20 years and allow Colorado to borrow up to $6 billion next year to pay for transportation projects. The total payment would be limited to $9.4 billion.

Backers of this measure include big-time business interests like the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Club 20, a heavy-hitter Western Slope civic and business group based in Grand Junction.

Chamber President Kelly Brough has said the coalition behind the measure said the reason they focused on a sales tax is that a flood of tourists would also pay in to help fund transportation.

Arguments for include: Colorado’s road projects face a decade-long $9 billion backlog and costs for transportation projects outstrip what the state brings in from its 22-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn’t gone up since 1991. New revenue would give local governments flexibility in how they spend it.

Arguments against include: the state should be able to find existing money in its budget for transportation projects without raising sales taxes, which are already at 10 percent in some places, and money should go towards roads and not projects like bike lanes.

Should Colorado use bonds for highway projects without raising taxes?

This proposed measure, backed by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, would require the state to borrow up to $3.5 billion for up to 66 specific highway projects and limit the total amount to $5.2 billion over the next two decades. Colorado would also have to come up with a source of money to repay the borrowed amount and could only do so without raising taxes or fees.

The campaign to pass this measure goes by “Fix Our Damn Roads” and is in direct competition to the one the Denver Chamber supports. The campaign comes with a colorful pitchman in Jon Caldara, who leads the Independence Institute and has a big megaphone in Colorado as host of the public affairs TV show “Devil’s Advocate” and access to digital and traditional media.

Arguments for the measure are that it will force the government to prioritize spending on road projects over other programs without raising taxes. Arguments against are that it would divert money from existing programs, and borrowing money is expensive because of interest rates.

Should Colorado put limits on payday loans?

This measure would not change the Constitution but would change state laws by limiting the total cost for a payday loan “to a 36 percent annual percentage rate” and expanding what constitutes “unfair or deceptive trade practices” for payday lending.

Payday loans are those places you see, often in strip malls, that offer quick cash loans at high interest rates and are seen by supporters as offering an economic lifeline and by critics as predatory lenders that hurt low-income Coloradans.

According to Legislative Council:

Colorado law limits payday loans to $500 with a minimum repayment term of six months and no maximum repayment term. The law allows lenders to charge an origination fee of up to percent of the first $300 loaned, plus 7.5 percent of any amount in excess of $300. In addition, lenders may charge an interest rate of 45 percent per year per loan and a monthly maintenance fee of $7.50 per $100 loaned, up to a total of $30 per month. If the borrower repays the loan early, the lender must refund a prorated portion of the APR. Current law defines unfair and deceptive trade practices as making loans disguised as personal property sale and leaseback agreements or as a cash rebate.

The measure would change that by limiting loan costs to a maximum APR of 36 percent and also scrap all specific fees. It would also say that whether or not a payday lender has a physical location in the state, it can’t skirt the new restrictions by, say, offering higher cost loans through the mail or online.

Arguments for the measure are that some Coloradans get stuck in a debt trap and new limits would help. Arguments against are that the measure could hurt the payday loan industry and if consumers can’t get payday loans they could pay fees for overdrafts, bounced checks, or utility re-connects.

Transparency in healthcare billing

As candidates for governor, Republican and Democrat alike, crisscrossed the state during the primary season, some of them told voters they believed healthcare providers should be more clear about how much procedures cost and why.

If passed, this measure would change Colorado laws so every health care provider would have to publish its fee schedule, give patients an itemized detailed bill, and tell a patient if care is covered under that patient’s insurance. It would also require pharmacies to publish its retail drug prices; and require health insurers “to publish contract terms with health care providers and facilities, patient cost-sharing obligations, and prescription drug negotiated rates.”

Arguments for it, according to an early draft at Legislative Council, are that patients are often confused by costs and more price transparency could result in increased competition and lower health care prices. Arguments against are that more transparency could undermine a “confidential negotiation process” between insurers and healthcare providers, which could lead to higher costs and less competition.

Change the Constitution to allow higher campaign contributions if a millionaire is in the race?

Call this the millionaire rule. Or even the millionaire-buddy rule. Colorado has relatively low limits on how much individuals can donate to a candidate for office. Right now it’s $1,150. The national median is around $3,800. The amount a candidate can give to his or her own campaign, however, is unlimited.

This became an issue in the recent Democratic primary for governor when the eventual nominee, Jared Polis, spent roughly $12 million of his own money on his bid. Critics of the status quo say that’s unfair to candidates who can’t roll their own dough into the race, and also that it leads to outside special interests pouring their own money into a race to help fund candidates of their choice, sometimes in ways where the source of those funds aren’t known.

So the idea behind this proposed measure is that if a candidate for office in Colorado puts more than $1 million of his or her own money into the race, all other candidates in that same election would be allowed to raise five times the limit for individual donations under the law. So, basically, they would able to raise $5,750 instead of $1,150 from each of their supporters.

This cap raise would trigger also if a candidate for office gave $1 million to an outside group to spend on the race or coordinated third-party spending on the race of more than $1 million— or if an outside individual put in more than a $1 million on behalf of a candidate in a race.

Former Republican lawmaker Greg Brophy, who ran for governor in the past, says it would level the playing field for non-wealthy candidates. He chose the multiple of five because that puts it closer to the limits for members of Congress, which is $5,400.

“There are those on the Libertarian right who say there should be no campaign contribution limit at all,” he says. “So you have to find something that has a chance to pass.”

Arguments for changing the state Constitution this way are that doing so levels the playing field when running against a wealthy candidate. Arguments against are that it would just allow even more money into politics and allow more wealthy donors to influence elections. “Self-funded candidates may be more likely to approach issues based on their own convictions, without the outside pressures that fundraising brings,” writes the Legislative Council.

“People don’t want an auction,” Brophy says. “They want an election.”

Caroline Fry, outreach director for Colorado Common Cause, which hasn’t taken a position on the issue, says while she understands the need to counteract big money in politics, opening up the floodgates isn’t a thoughtful approach.

“We’ve worked really hard to establish meaningful contribution limits in order to make sure that Coloradans’ voices are heard in elections— not just the wealthy and special interests,” she says.  “We want to work to further improve our campaign finance system, not walk those limits back. It’s a large jump.”

Ban the sale of smartphones to minors

Backers of this measure that would change state law to prohibit the sale of smartphones for kids under 13 call it “preservation of natural childhood” and blame governments and megacorporations for failing to “rescue” generations of children from the “careless and experimental introduction” of technological devices and their “addictive” and “dangerous” impacts.

Drafted in part by a Colorado anesthesiologist named Tim Farnum who says he saw negative effects of smartphone use in his own children, the measure earned national ink. His kids, he told The Washington Post, became moody and quiet and didn’t leave their bedrooms. And when he tried to tell them to ease up on the screen time? “All of a sudden the fangs come out,” he said.

Photo by Ted Wood

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

1 Comment

  1. Byron on said:

    republicans are behind the “sign no petitions” advertisements.

    republicans are deathly afraid that this year will be a Blue Wave – and they may be correct about that.

    So they do not want any ballot measure to pass because it would mean that Democrats favor it. Therefore they are trying to prevent you the citizen from having any choices of ballot initiatives. The trump(R) party wants keep your voice stifled.

    Look for these same repubs to challenge any initiatives that pass in court.

    republicans are bad for our democracy, bad for government and bad for our country in general. The party of trump(R) wants to say NO! to any attempt to serve the common person with better government.

    The party of trump(R) only likes government spending on the wealthy – NOT you and I.

    VOTE! 6 November

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