ELECTIONS-06302020-KS-139

Election judges at the Denver Elections Division receive, prepare, and process ballots on June 30, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. There are fewer judges working in the normally filled rooms to maintain physical distancing, and voting stations are cleaned continuously as a precaution due to COVID-19.

Abortion, taxes, gaming and wolves are among the issues Coloradans will consider — along with the election of a president and a U.S. senator — in this November’s election.

Ballot measures don’t have a prominent place on the ballot and often are overlooked by voters, but the collection of amendments and propositions can play an outsized role in Colorado’s future.

This year, voters will consider 11 measures, three referred from the Colorado General Assembly and eight from citizens who went through a multi-phase process, including collecting signatures from registered voters, in order to make the ballot. 

I’m not a big fan of citizen initiatives, in part because they circumvent the legislature.

And some are notoriously difficult to understand, whether you’re Joe Eighteen Pack or a member of the bar association. 

Take Douglas Bruce’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. A number of supporters say they supported it because TABOR gave voters the right to decide tax increases. But TABOR does so much more than that, and the complicated formula for taxation and spending has, according to Democratic lawmakers and a surprising number of Republican ones, crippled funding for transportation, higher ed and other programs.

Bruce failed in two attempts to get TABOR-like measures passed. He succeeded on his third attempt in 1992. The focus that election was on the presidential race, in which Democrat Bill Clinton prevailed, and on another measure, Amendment 2, which limited gay rights and drew national attention. 

Heated battles, yes, but those times feel almost quaint. 

Politics now has polarized the entire country. I made the mistake of bringing up Black Lives Matter at a recent family wedding, although my siblings warned me to stop. We have Republicans who worship at the altar of Fox News and liberals more left than Rachel Maddow so we’re lucky a brawl didn’t break out. 

When it comes to Republican President Donald Trump, most people I know are ardent, won’t-budge-an-inch fans or they’re foes. Trump’s showdown with Democrat Joe Biden will overshadow most discussions about Colorado’s ballot measures. 

But these are discussions we need to have. 

Voters will consider Amendment B, which was put on the ballot by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. It basically repeals the Gallagher Amendment, the 1982 measure that ensures the bulk of property tax revenue collected comes from non-residential property, such as oil-and-gas, industry and small business. Basically, it’s a 45-55 split.

Here’s an analysis of Gallagher from the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce: 

“The percentage of property tax paid by a residential home owner today is a little less than 1% of actual value. Commercial properties pay about 3% of actual value. Residential property taxes in Colorado rank fifth-lowest of the 50 states. The urban industrial property tax rate ranks 19th-highest in the nation.

“Rural areas bear a greater burden with Gallagher because they have a smaller number of industrial properties, ranking 13th-highest in the nation for commercial property values, further reducing rural communities’ economic competitiveness.”

Colorado has experienced huge growth in residential values, so the only way to keep the amount of residential property tax revenue lower than commercial, and thus maintain the 45-55 split, has been to lower the residential assessment rate, the percentage of a property’s value that gets taxed. 

When Gallagher first passed, the assessment rate was 21%. It’s now around 7%. And in years where commercial property grew in value more than residential, the assessment rate couldn’t automatically be floated back up, because TABOR was now law and that would’ve been a tax increase. 

So, the assessment rate has just been ratcheted and ratcheted downward, which is why the combination of Gallagher and TABOR has been disastrous.

Another measure on this year’s ballot, Proposition 116, lowers the state income tax rate from 4.63% to 4.5%. Republicans who put the measure on the ballot say Coloradans need relief from an economic crisis during this worldwide pandemic. 

Gov. Jared Polis irked fellow Democrats when he told The Colorado Sun at the time, “I think Coloradans certainly need tax relief.” Opponents of the measure argue the same pandemic has greatly reduced tax collections, leaving lawmakers to deal with huge budget deficits. 

I recently appeared on the Common Sense Institute podcast to talk ballot measures with my former Rocky Mountain News partner-in-crime, Ed Sealover, who works for the Denver Business Journal. 

Few reporters understand policy as well as Sealover and he did a great job of explaining the measures for CSI, a  non-partisan research institute “with the goal to educate and inform Coloradans on the facts related to policy proposals.”

He talked about Proposition 117, which involves fees and enterprise accounts. 

I admitted in the podcast I read the proposal several times and struggled to understand it, which isn’t surprising because it involves numbers. (I used to ask political jester Jon Caldara to help me do percentages. An unholy alliance, to be sure.) 

A voter has to do a lot of work to really understand what some measures mean.  So many ballot measures are awfully worded and one of those unfortunate proposals has come up again and again in this year’s U. S. Senate race. 

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper is trying to unseat the Republican incumbent, Cory Gardner.  Hickenlooper in June was found to have violated state ethics laws when he was governor.

Polis in 2006 bankrolled the ethics measure, which in part limits the gifts elected officials and government staffers can receive. It created the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission to offer advice and guidance on ethics issues and review complaints about possible violations.  Polis has admitted the measure was poorly written, and experts say some crucial tenets are open to interpretation. 

The Ethics Commission in June ruled that Hickenlooper violated state law when he accepted a ride in a Maserati limousine at a conference in Italy and traveled on a private jet to Connecticut for the commissioning of the USS Colorado submarine.

The ads slamming Hickenlooper over the ethics violations are over the top and brutal, although conventional wisdom says it’s another Democratic year and Trump is pulling down Gardner.

But, oh, the irony if Gardner pulls off an upset. From the start, the ethics commission has been used as fodder for political warfare, which didn’t seem to bother Democrats until it was used against one of their own.

Of course the Senate race is important. But so are ballot measures. 

Educate yourself on them. Read the fine print. A list of the statewide ballot measures can be found at the Secretary of State’s website. 

Among them: Initiative 117 requires the re-introduction of gray wolves on designated land beginning Dec. 31, 2023. Opponents argue we’re not talking about the loveable Two Socks from the movie “Dances With Wolves.”

And that’s just for starters. Your city or county or special district might also have issues on the ballot.  I’m tired just thinking about it — but prepared to educate myself.

Lynn Bartels thinks politics is like sports but without the big salaries and protective cups. The Washington Post's "The Fix" blog named her one of Colorado's best political reporters and tweeters. Bartels, a South Dakota native, graduated from Cottey College in 1977 and Northern Arizona University in 1980 and then moved to New Mexico for her first journalism job. The Rocky Mountain News hired her in 1993 as its night cops reporter and in 2000 assigned her to her first legislative session. The Gold Dome hasn't been the same since. In 2009, The Denver Post hired Bartels after the Rocky closed, just shy of its 150th birthday. Bartels left journalism in 2015 to join then Secretary of State Wayne Williams's staff. She has now returned to journalism - at least part-time - and writes a regular political column for Colorado Politics.

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