Six Ballot Initiatives With Far-Reaching Implications, From Housing to Fracking

Although constitutional amendments are harder to pass these days thanks to the Raise the Bar amendment that voters approved in 2016, citizen groups are plowing forward with their petitions or opting for easier-to-circulate statutory amendments.

To date, 55 statutory and constitutional initiatives have been filed with the Colorado Secretary of State Title Board, but they're not all ready for showtime. Only three petitions are in circulation to date. Of the dozens of filed initiatives, several are almost identical, which can cause some confusion early on regarding which initiatives to look out for.

"It's not uncommon to see people file a number of initiatives and tweak a little bit," Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert says. "They'll decide later which one they want to circulate."

One of those circulating petitions would seemingly dissuade government from assessing fees and financial penalties. The initiative, if approved, would divert hundreds of millions of dollars to victim restitution or, in the absence of a victim, charity, and away from the coffers of municipalities and state agencies. The second circulating petition is the sister to a draft bill in front of state legislators that would increase access to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, a service the state has provided for almost four years. The third circulating petition would reduce state income taxes and restructure tax credits.

Of course, the race to the ballot is a long, arduous c. Initiatives require multiple public hearings and text revisions by Legislative Council staff, the secretary of state and, for appeals, the Colorado Supreme Court. After that series of approvals, which can drag on for several weeks, petitioners must gather the requisite 98,492 valid signatures. (Petitioners will have to gather thousands more signatures than that, however, as the state's verification process typically disqualifies at least one-quarter of collected signatures.) The Raise the Bar amendment means that petitions for any constitutional amendments must be signed by at least 2 percent of registered voters in each of the state's 35 Senate districts.

The list goes on for what Coloradans may have in store when they open their Blue Books this election cycle, from anti-fracking measures to an overhaul of partisan gerrymandering in state and congressional elections. Here's what to look for.

1. Education
With looming teacher shortages and inadequate funding for public-school education, a group is seeking a constitutional amendment that would change school finance and tax laws. So far, eighteen initiatives have been filed to pour billions of dollars back into public schools for full-day kindergarten as well as special education, gifted and talented, and English-language-learner programs. The initiative will also require the state to fully fund education by removing a legislative technique called the "budget stabilization factor," which has underfunded public schools by $6.67 billion since its implementation in 2009.

But where the significant constitutional change happens in each of these initiatives is public education's relationship with the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights — or TABOR — laws. Tax revenues for public education under these proposals would be exempt from TABOR revenue limits.

Each of the eighteen initiatives — some are pending rehearings by the Title Board, and others have already been approved — have created different tax schemes that would generate anywhere from $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion in additional annual revenue through different combinations of state income-tax appropriations, corporate tax rate increases and property-assessment rates.

2. Fracking
Grassroots anti-frackers are a couple of weeks away from circulating a petition — initiative No. 97 — for some of the strictest setback requirements in the country for oil and gas developments. Proponents are calling for a 2,500-foot buffer zone between all new oil and gas developments in the state and a slew of occupied buildings and "vulnerable areas," which would effectively ban the industry in most of the state. The one exception made in the statutory amendment would be developments on federal lands. A re-hearing by the Title Board will be held on February 7. If the measure is approved, the title will be set, and proponents can begin gathering signatures.

3. Gerrymandering
In an effort to remove partisan politics and create a truly independent commission that would handle both congressional and legislative redistricting, two competing coalitions are duking it out with the Title Board and the Colorado Supreme Court.

Fair Districts Colorado put forward five initiatives to create an independent commission for state legislative and congressional redistricting. The first two initiatives — numbers 48 and 50 — were approved by the Colorado Supreme Court and could begin circulating any day. But the coalition's three other similar initiatives — numbers 67, 68 and 69, which were filed as improvements to the first two proposals — are stuck in the Colorado Supreme Court over an appeal by competing group People Not Politicians.

People Not Politicians filed two competing initiatives — numbers 95 and 96 — to create an independent commission in its own image for both state legislative and congressional districts.

It all comes down to who can create the most independent process for redistricting.

Both proposals would create a balanced twelve-member commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters. Both include competitive districts as a factor in redistricting. Both would require the vote of a super-majority — including at least one unaffiliated voter. Both prohibit incumbents and political candidates from serving on the commission. But Fair Districts Colorado and People Not Politicians part ways on a couple significant details.

The first point of contention is the commissioner selection process.

Fair Districts Colorado, which is endorsed by the League of Women Voters of Colorado, the Centrist Project and a host of current and former politicians, in its first two initiatives called for political parties or party leaders to select their own representatives on the commission, who would then vote to appoint the unaffiliated commissioners from a shortlist of applicants created by a panel of senior or retired judges. After blowback on the proposal from critics, the coalition's newest initiatives would, instead, send the shortlist of unaffiliated applicants to the secretary of state for a random selection process.

People Not Politicians, a coalition of more than twenty civic organizations including Mi Familia Vota, have a different take on what constitutes an independent commission. It proposes that nonpartisan staff at the Capitol — Legislative Legal Services and the Legislative Council — select the first half of the commission from a list of applicants. Then the final six applicants are chosen by the chief judge of the Colorado Court of Appeals.

The second major point of contention is whether to include race and language groups as a factor for consideration when drawing districts.

Fair Districts Colorado is pushing to include race and language as factors to be considered when preserving "communities of interest" in redistricting. People Not Politicians is opposed to the language, saying that individuals of a similar race or language group don't necessarily think or believe the same things, and therefore shouldn't be lumped together in the same district.

Fair District Colorado's initial two ballot initiatives could be circulated any day now, though the group is waiting on the Colorado Supreme Court before making a decision for its latter three initiatives.

People Not Politicians is having a Title Board re-hearing on February 7.

4. Housing
As the housing crunch across the state reaches a critical point, one group is petitioning to place restrictions on residential growth for ten of the state's most populous counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer and Weld. Ballot initiative Number 66 would limit the number of locally issued housing permits to 1 percent annual growth for 2019 and 2020. If approved, voters would be unable to amend or repeal the statutory initiative until 2021.

Denver has been named the third-most-competitive housing market in the U.S., partly because of the near "crisis levels" of inventory available. Nearly 40 percent of all homes in Denver sold above asking price, with a median paid-over-list price of $10,000.

The ballot initiative, while approved by the Title Board in December, is still pending in the Colorado Supreme Court.

5. Local government
Since last year, a petition has been circulating to drain an estimated $256.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year from the coffers of several state agencies. Initiative Number 53 is aimed at what proponents have called a "conflict of interest" when government both assesses and collects fines. In order to break up that stated conflict, government would only be allowed to recover damages, not profit, from any fees, fines, forfeitures or surcharges. All money would be directed to victim restitution first. In the event that payment is for a victim-less crime or exceeds the cost of restitution, funds would be allocated to a charity of the fine payer's choosing.

Colorado courts would be most affected by this petition, losing a projected $32.7 million the first year. Other state agencies include the departments of Labor and Employment, Transportation, Revenue and Public Safety, each projected to lose several millions of dollars in fine revenue.

6. Taxes
A state income-tax petition — initiative Number 83 — began circulating this month to reduce the state income-tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.6 percent and would eliminate all existing state tax additions and credits while reducing state income-tax filings to four lines. (The calls for simplified taxes aren't new, but this sounds similar to the so-called postcard method that Republicans had pushed for years.)

Replacing all 21 of those lost state tax credits would be a calculated flat dollar amount given to every resident. The plan calls for a simple formula that adds up all of the state income-tax credits in 2018 plus tobacco settlement revenue, car registration fees and a few other revenue streams divided by the number of state taxpayers to come up with a flat tax credit for everyone. The plan would cost the state up to $12 billion per fiscal year.