When Democrats in the Colorado legislature this year unveiled their signature bill to enact new transportation charges to pay for highways and transit projects, Tory opponents of the measure had a swift and confident response. : see you soon at the polls.
However, the opposition wasn’t necessarily talking about trying to overthrow the Democrats. They promised to bring a question to the ballot to roll out legislation, a route the Conservatives are increasingly using to influence Colorado politics.
Colorado Republicans have failed to get many candidates elected over the past two election cycles, but they have had some success proposing and opposing voting measures, mostly around taxes.
Last year, for example, Jon Caldara, who heads the conservative Independence Institute, secured an income tax cut through Proposition 116. Michael Fields, who heads Colorado Rising Action, a conservative fiscal policy group , defended the adoption of Proposition 117, which requires voter approval of certain new fees.
âA lot of our voting problems try to address things we don’t like and the legislature is doing,â Fields said. “I think there is a disconnect between what the legislature thinks people want and what they really want.”
Fields is expected to come up with two measures in the November ballot, one reducing property taxes and the other requiring tighter legislative oversight of how money, such as money raised through court settlements or received from the government federal, is spent. His group has submitted signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office for review, and they appear to have enough to secure a spot in the Nov. 2 poll.
Democrats dominated election wars, but the tide is turning. Tyler Sandberg, a Republican agent who heads the conservative education nonprofit Ready Colorado, said the GOP was pursuing voting issues as part of a “sea change in the way Republicans approach politics here”.
âAgain and again, there have always been Liberal initiatives on the ballot,â Sandberg said. âSometimes the best defense is a good offense. This takes on added significance when Democrats have a stranglehold on all of state government. I think Republicans should have done it 10 years ago.
Democrats control the State Senate and House, as well as the governor’s office. In fact, the party has more power in Colorado than it has had in over 80 years.
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But that hasn’t always been so, and Democrats have often turned to voting measures to get their priorities passed when they couldn’t in the legislature.
Amendment 70, on the 2016 ballot, is one of the best recent examples of how Democrats have used the ballot measurement process to advance their political agenda. The amendment, which passed by a wide margin, raised the Colorado minimum wage to $ 12 an hour.
At the time, Republicans still controlled the state Senate, which meant that only legislation backed by the GOP could get to the governor’s desk and be enacted. The measure was a way around that barrier and was also seen by Democrats as a way to increase voter turnout.
Last year, Republicans backed passage of Amendment 76, which stipulated that only U.S. citizens over the age of 18 can vote in Colorado elections – a measure that mostly replicates what’s already in the law of State. However, many saw the amendment as a GOP ploy to increase turnout and excite their base in a year when the presidency and a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado were up for grabs.
Democrats have passed two bills this year to guard against the threat they believe is posed by conservative voting initiatives, particularly on taxes.
One measure, House Bill 1321, requires voters to be well informed of the programs that would be affected by tax-lowering voting issues, and how much money would be cut. The other, Senate Bill 293, would effectively neutralize Fields’ property tax reduction measure.
âIt’s very easy to give people free money and give them an unrealistic free ride,â said State Senator Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who sits on the Joint Budget Committee and is opposes tax reduction measures. âBut there is no free ride here. Ballot tax policy usually leads to bad results. “
Hansen said there’s a reason Colorado has representative government.
âThe average citizen does not want to make decisions on a thousand budget items in the state budget,â he said.
The Conservatives are backing two initiatives that are expected to feature in the 2021 ballot.
Initiative 19 seeks to impose increased legislative oversight of how money, including legal and federal government regulations, is spent. Initiative 27 aims to reduce property taxes.
Carol Hedges, who heads the liberal-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute, pointed out that the Conservatives have had little success recently in passing voting measures. Last year, an effort to ban abortions in Colorado at 22 weeks pregnant failed, and in 2018 voters rejected a measure allowing bonds to be paid for transportation projects as an alternative to new taxes and fees. .
Hedges also raised concerns about who is funding the initiatives – donors who often do not need to be, and therefore are not, made public.
âJust because Michael Fields and Jon Caldara continue to present the voting measures to voters does not necessarily mean they will approve them,â she said. “It just means that people who have donors who are willing to keep spending millions and millions and millions of dollars to get things on the ballot to pursue a philosophy of ‘if you can’t you allow it, you can’t get it. ” ‘
An independent spending committee formed to support the property tax measure this year, aptly called Cut Property Taxes, has raised $ 875,000 through July 28. It all came from Unite for Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that doesn’t have to report donors.
The Expenditure Transparency Committee, which supports the spending approval measure, raised about $ 1.4 million until July 28, almost all of which also came from Unite for Colorado.
(Colorado Democrats and Republicans rely on black money groups, nonprofits that don’t have to report donors, to bolster their campaigns.)
Colorado GOP President Kristi Burton Brown sent a note to Republicans last week noting that the state party had approved Fields’ two voting measures, encouraging supporters to prepare for the November election.
Burton Brown equated the importance of metrics to local elections, like school board and city council races, on the ballot this year.
Jesse Mallory, who heads Americans for Prosperity Colorado, said it was hypocritical for Democrats to criticize the Conservatives for pushing the voting measures.
Last year, Progressives used a voting initiative to implement a paid family and parental leave program in Colorado after repeated failures in the legislature. They have also tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to pass a host of tax-raising measures in recent years. Due to the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, all tax increases must be approved by voters.
âDemocrats have used it for years when they couldn’t get their policies through the legislature,â he said. “The irony I see is when they do that it’s pure and ‘power for the people’, but when we do it’s’ oh my God what are you doing do ?'”
Mallory also lambasted Hansen for suggesting that tax policy should primarily be left to the legislature. âThe idea that people have no idea that, I think it’s incredibly insulting,â he said.
The challenge for Republicans now is to find a way to turn their successes with voting initiatives into victories for party candidates.
âI don’t think Republicans did a good job telling people what they’re running on and what they would do if elected,â Fields said. “I think the Republican Party here is starting to work on this.”
For now, Republicans will take what they can.
Caldara, who heads the Independence Institute, and Republican State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, from Sterling, collect signatures for a 2022 poll question to reduce the state’s tax rate to 4.4% against 4.55%.
Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.
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