Measures so far: The big questions on your November ballot in Colorado

From slavery to hemp to fixing our “damn roads,” Coloradans will face a kaleidoscope of questions on their November ballots.

With the election more than two months away, there are already a dozen questions we know voters will get to answer.

These 13, if passed, include measures that would remove the definition of “industrial hemp” from our state Constitution and also cut language about slavery from it. Two would change the way we draw our political boundaries— for Congress and the legislature— and yet another would change how our ballots actually look. Two more are competing for how we should fund our roads, two deal with fracking, and one would change how we fund education.

Related: Here are some questions that might be on your November ballot in Colorado

In Colorado, it is relatively easy to change the state’s ever-changing Constitution, or change state laws, by putting questions on the ballot for voters to decide. These questions wind up before voters in one of two ways: By people gathering enough signatures— 98,492 of them this year— or by the General Assembly voting by a two-thirds majority to put them directly on. Those trying to change the Constitution, however, faced new hurdles. 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. (A federal lawsuit by a coalition of groups seeking to challenge the new Senate districts requirement is currently pending. Ballot measures that just change state laws rather than the Constitution don’t have to follow the new higher hurdles.) All campaigns had to turn in their signatures by Aug. 6.

Before voters get their ballots in the mail in November, they’ll get an information booklet produced by state government called a Blue Book. The booklet is filled with analysis about the questions including arguments for and against each measure. Staff at the legislature vet the information in the Blue Book and conduct public hearings with interested parties about each measure to draft a summary of arguments for or against. 

“It’s the most excruciating group writing process you’ve ever seen,” says Julia Jackson, a Legislative Council staffer who oversees ballot initiatives at the legislature.

Until then, here’s an early primer of what changes to the Constitution or state law we already know could come from the tip of your pen, either because lawmakers referred questions about them directly onto the ballot or because campaigns gathered enough signatures to get them there. 

Should Colorado scrap the definition of ‘industrial hemp’ from the Constitution?

In the state where voters first legalized the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana, lawmakers agreed during the last session to now ask voters whether Colorado should remove the definition of “industrial hemp” from the state Constitution.

Colorado is the only state to put such a definition in its Constitution, according to hemp industry lobbyist Cindy Sovine, and, in it, industrial hemp is defined as “the plant of the genus cannabis and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration that does not exceed three-tenths 23 [0.3] percent on a dry weight basis.” Hemp is the non-psychoactive part of a cannabis plant. In other words, it can’t get you high. But it can be used as an agricultural product for anything from clothing to construction materials, health foods to biofuels. 

Supporters of this measure say scrapping the definition of industrial hemp in our Constitution and moving it over to state law where it automatically aligns with the federal definition would allow Colorado’s hemp growers to more easily stay in step with federal policy and remain competitive with other states. If the definition stays in the Constitution and the federal definition of hemp changes, Colorado could find itself out of compliance and stuck that way until the next election when the question would likely again appear on the ballot.

Sovine says she hopes this measure passes in November— and that voters aren’t confused and think it’s trying to get rid of hemp. “That’s not the case,” she says. “The intention and support that came from the hemp community was really to give the state the flexibility, like every other state, to remain in [federal] compliance.”

There was no organized opposition to the measure, Sovine says. But Legislative Council, the department in the legislature that works on ballot measures, writes in a draft analysis that an argument against it could be that voters already approved of the definition of industrial hemp in 2012 when they passed the Amendment 64 ballot measure that legalized weed and passing this amendment would allow lawmakers to change it in a way voters didn’t initially intend when they first cast ballots on the big pot question six years ago.

Should Colorado change the way it draws districts for Congress and state lawmakers?

As part of a grand compromise among warring ideological factions in Colorado, these measures would change the way we draw our political boundaries for members of Congress and lawmakers to water down the influence of political parties and politicians and give more power to unaffiliated commissioners who approve maps. These separate measures— one for Congress and the other for the legisalture— are well-funded efforts with big-name backing.

The measures would give more weight to non-party members during the process of drawing the districts for Colorado’s seven members of Congress and 100 members of the state legislature – a redistricting process that takes place after each 10-year census. The next Census is in 2020 and because of the state’s booming population, we could get an extra congressional seat.

Currently, the legislature draws congressional maps. The new proposal would give that authority to a 12-member commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters. To approve a map, eight of the 12 commission members, including two unaffiliated members, would have to agree. There’s a lot more to it, and you can read our latest in-depth story about what these measures would do here.

Should Colorado remove language in the state Constitution that currently allows slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for the conviction of a crime?

This is a throwback— a ballot question that failed to pass in 2016.

Currently, Colorado’s Constitution says, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The 2016 ballot measure— and this latest one— aimed to scrap that exception. Post-election data two years ago showed many voters left the question blank on their ballots, declining to answer it. And some voters that year said they just found the question too confusing.

Even New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler, who lives in Colorado, seemed spun around by the language. He had this to say about the amendment in 2016:

“On a ballot full of odd and confusing measures, I couldn’t untangle the language of Amendment T: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” Does yes mean yes, or does yes mean no? The election of 2016 disturbs me in many ways, and one of them is that I honestly cannot remember whether I voted for or against slavery.”

This time around, the language will be much less confusing, says Thornton Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, who helped get the measure on the ballot. “We worked extremely hard to make it clearer to the voters that to vote ‘Yes’ means removal of the slavery exception from the Constitution,” he says.

Should we lower the age requirement for lawmakers from 25 to 21?

According to Colorado’s Constitution, state legislators must be old enough to rent a car, not just old enough to buy a beer. Voters across Colorado this year will get to decide if they want to see younger lawmakers representing them in Denver. Lawmakers actually put this one on the ballot, too, so we know at least two-thirds of them want voters to weigh in.

A decade ago, voters rejected an identical question, though, so we’ll see if things have changed in the past 10 years. Arguments for it are that those between 21 and 24 are adults under the law and voters should decide their maturity level. Arguments against are that they might lack the maturity and expertise to become effective in the legislature.

How about changing the ballot format for judicial retention elections to list justices and judges seeking retention by court type?

If the slavery amendment confused voters or gave them ballot-measure fatigue in 2016, we can’t wait to see the undervote on this question. This measure would change the state Constitution to allow a change in the way the section of the ballot on judicial retention appears.

In Colorado, voters get to decide the fate of judges once they are appointed, and some tend to skip answering these questions altogether. Six years ago, a quarter of voters left the questions blank. And even when people do vote, 9News reported in 2016 that voters tend to retain judges even if those judges get bad reviews from a state panel that evaluates them and deems them unfit to serve.

To view the way the ballot section looks now and the with the proposed changes, click the link below:

Judicial retention ballot Q

Arguments for this measure are that voting “Yes” will help make the ballot more concise and user-friendly in the way it asks voters to retain judges. An argument against the change could be that voters might confuse judicial retention with a regular election and believe justices are actually running against each other rather than just asking to stay on the bench.

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 became the first campaign to get on the ballot under the new rules making it harder to do so.

Related: New rule to ‘raise the bar’ for ballot measures wasn’t high enough for this ed-funding campaign

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.

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.

Increased setbacks for oil-and-gas drillers?

A perennial tension in certain parts of Colorado is the clash of surging residential housing growth, health and public safety, 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. Now that this is on the ballot, get ready for a major advertising war waged by oil-and-gas interests that see it as a potential death knell for their business in Colorado.

Backers of this measure say drilling operations are unhealthy for those living close to them.

Related: Read our series, FRACTURED, that examines the science, politics and humanity of oil-and-gas development and explores its impacts on Coloradans around the state

Opponents of the measure say more than 80 percent of non-federal land would be off limits under those new setbacks. Both major party candidates for governor, Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton, oppose the measure saying it would all but ban fracking in the state.

Joe Ryan, faculty director at the AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says they are currently studying the setback distance issue, not so much to come up with a “correct distance,” but more to illustrate the competing factors that should go into a regulatory decision. He says, however, they likely won’t have anything finished before the November election. “It is complicated, it’s not easy,” he said. He added that oil-and-gas operators now have the technology to use horizontal drilling that extends to distances up to 10,000 feet.

Getting this measure on the ballot wasn’t easy. As a group called Colorado Rising was gathering signatures to do so, opposition activists followed their petition gatherers around with signs trying to deter people from signing petitions. Two companies hired to help gather the signatures bailed, with Colorado Rising alleging someone even paid off one of them to do so.

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.” The Colorado Municipal League opposes the measure in part out of concern, that “all types of ordinances and policies at the municipal level would be affected, like code enforcement, land use and zoning, licensing, and redevelopment.” Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said about the league and local governments, “They really believe, and I think I’m led to side with them, that this would fundamentally weaken their ability just to do the basic functions of government.”

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.

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.”

Top photo by Philip Steffan Creative Commons in Flickr. 

5 COMMENTS

  1. Where is all the marijuana money going? I thought we were told THAT would fund schools, roads, etc. Why are we even talking about this!? Between all the corporate HQ flooding here, all the new residents, and everyone getting high, how can we possibly not have enough money?

  2. When will we get another report on what the polls show re voter preference between the two candidates for governor?

    Will they ever take positions on gun safety/regulation, DACA/immigration, racial relations/judicial reform? Or, the opiate problem in the state? Pretty boring contest so far.

    Thanks…
    Larry W Gibson

  3. Re Increased Setbacks for oil & gas drillers? Or call it, 2500 feet safer:
    It is important to note that the measurement is taken from the building, not the property line; for example, in the case of schools, this can allow for oil and gas development right across the street of a school playground. Some state reps. and senators attempted to at least change the law to measure from the property line; but it didn’t pass and became a problem for the people to address.
    Either the reporter misunderstood or the faculty director at CU Boulder did not explain clearly with regard to the article statement: “… oil-and-gas operators now have the technology to use horizontal drilling that extends to distances up to 10,000 feet.” Just as the “2500 feet safer” ballot proposal rounded down a ½ mile (2,640 ft) to an easier or more memorable number, I imagine the faculty director rounded down to 10,000 ft the 2 miles (10,560 ft) IN EITHER DIRECTION FROM A WELL that are CURRENTLY BEING ACCOMPLISHED. Current technology actually is up to at least 10 miles (52,800 ft) in either direction.

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