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West view of Colorado Capitol building on Saturday July 21, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This time two years ago, Colorado voters “raised the bar” in a bid to shrink the state’s ballot and keep potentially devastating policies out of the state constitution.

Two years later? In the first test of the new requirements, the statewide ballot looks as packed as ever.

And Colorado political leaders say the stakes are unusually high.

Voters will have two transportation options to pick from — or three, if you count a legislative proposal that would hit the ballot in 2019 if the two this year fail. There are also two tax hikes on the docket — one for roads, plus one of over $1.6 billion for schools.

Marijuana is back on the ballot. So are slavery (yes, slavery) and gerrymandering.

And somehow those aren’t even the most significant ones.

That title belongs to the one-two punch of a constitutional “takings” measure that could cost state and local governments billions of dollars, and an anti-fracking initiative that Colorado’s oil and gas industry views as an existential crisis.

Let’s start there:

Setbacks, and payback

A resident of a farm near where Crestone Peak Resources proposes to drill 28 wells from property covered by Boulder County conservation easements uses a campaign sign to urge people to vote against Proposition 112. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Proposition 112: Setbacks for oil and gas

Type: Change in state law. Simple majority required for passage.

At issue: Should oil and gas drill rigs have a 2,500-foot buffer from homes and natural features such as lakes and streams?

Concerns over explosions and pollution near neighborhoods, schools and water are driving this ballot measure, which is primarily aimed at fracking along the densely populated Front Range. The half-mile buffer proposed by this initiative is five-times the current 500-foot setback from homes. Schools and neighborhoods today have a 1,000-foot setback.

The ramifications: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission estimates that the new buffer would block off 85 percent of the state’s non-federal land from oil and gas drilling, and that figure is only likely to grow as new subdivisions pop up to accommodate new residents. Existing drills would be exempt from the new rules, so don’t expect the industry to close up shop overnight. But eventually, industry analysts say, the measure is certain to cost the state tens of thousands of jobs. Don’t take our word for it — just look at what happened to oil and gas stocks after this made the ballot.

For more: Read the measure and ballot analysis.

Amendment 74: Payback for government takings

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

The issue: Should the government reimburse property owners for a loss in market value caused by the passage of a law or regulation?

Right now, the government has to reimburse property owners when taking away their land through eminent domain. But not if the government devalues the land by restricting what can be done with it. This happens all the time, through zoning rules, water regulations, environmental protections — even something as simple as prohibiting a strip club or firing range from popping up next to a school could be perceived as government depleting the land’s value.

This amendment would change that, requiring the government to reimburse property owners any time it adopts a new law or regulation that negatively affects someone’s land value, even without taking their land from them. Importantly, this also extends to mineral rights, such as oil and natural gas.

The ramifications: This one’s a doozy. On its own, it could be a headache for city planners and state regulators, who would have to start considering adjacent land values in every decision they make. But couple it with the setback proposal to push oil and gas drilling away from neighborhoods, parks, lakes and streams, and the state could be on the hook for billions in compensation to oil and gas companies.

For more: Read the measure and ballot analysis. And check out reporter Mark Jaffe’s excellent explainer of how this and the setback initiative could be a costly combination.

Story: “It is going to be very messy”: Opposing oil and gas ballot measures respond to Colorado’s contentious drilling climate

New taxes — or not

Colorado 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Proposition 110: Sales taxes for transportation

Type: Change in state law. Simple majority required for passage.

At issue: Should Colorado raise sales taxes by just over half a penny to fund highway and mass transit projects?

This debate has raged at the state legislature for years, and this November, voters will finally have a choice. Behind door No. 1 lies a .62 percent sales tax hike that would raise $767 million a year for state highway, mass transit and local infrastructure projects. The bulk of the proceeds would be used to pay off $6 billion in transportation bonds. The debt payments would cost the state up to $9.4 billion with interest over 20 years.

The ramifications: The typical Colorado family making $74,000 is projected to pay an extra $131 in sales taxes each year to fund the measure. That would give the state a dedicated revenue stream for roads, while sparing the rest of the state budget the cuts that would be required to fund the state’s infrastructure needs otherwise.

For more: Read the measure and the ballot analysis.

Proposition 109: “Fix Our Damn Roads”

Type: Change in state law. Simple majority required for passage.

At issue: Should the state borrow $3.5 billion for roads — without raising taxes?

Behind Door No. 2 lies the colorfully named “Fix Our Damn Roads,” an initiative backed by the conservative Independence Institute. This one differs from Proposition 110 in a few key ways: It would borrow less money for projects, devotes nothing to mass transit, and wouldn’t raise a single new tax dollar to do so. Instead, the state legislature would have to come up with about $260 million a year to pay back the bonds, which with interest would cost the state up to $5.2 billion.

The ramifications: This one’s about forcing the legislature’s hand. By issuing bonds without new revenue to pay for them, this could eventually require lawmakers to cut spending on something else. Not every budget will be as flush with cash as this year’s, which allowed lawmakers to set aside big dollars for roads, schools and the state pension.

For more: Read the measure and the ballot analysis.

Denver’s East High School on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. (Lauren Bieber, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Amendment 73: Income taxes (and more) for schools

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

The issue: Should Colorado raise income taxes on corporations and the wealthy and prevent property tax cuts for homeowners to inject an extra $1.6 billion a year into the state’s schools?

The premise of this one is pretty self-explanatory on the surface: income taxes would go up for corporations and for people making more than $150,000. Residential property tax assessments would drop by 0.2 percentage points to 7 percent. Businesses would get a bigger cut, with their assessment rate falling from 29 percent to 24 percent.

But there’s a lot for voters to unpack. Let’s start with the income taxes, which would generate an extra $1.4 billion from individuals and $230 million from businesses. Today, Colorado taxpayers all pay the same income tax rate — 4.63 percent. That’s because a provision in the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights prohibits the state from charging people more based on how much they make. This would eliminate that provision, then set up four new brackets, charging from 5 percent for earnings between $150,000 to $200,000, to 8.25 percent for earnings above $500,000. If, like 92 percent of Coloradans, you make under $150,000, your income taxes would stay the same.

Taxable incomeTax increase
Less than $150,000$0
$1 million$24,395

The corporate income tax hike is simpler — it goes up from 4.63 percent to 6 percent across the board, an increase of $14,139 for the average company.

Then there’s the property taxes. Technically it’s a tax cut, dropping the residential assessment rate from 7.2 percent to 7, and the commercial rate from 29 to 25. But what it’s really doing on the residential side is preventing future, deeper cuts by exempting schools from the Gallagher Amendment — the residential property-tax limiting baby brother of TABOR.

Next year, for instance, Gallagher is projected to cut residential assessments to 6.11 percent.

The ramifications: This one would raise some serious cash for schools — $1.6 billion in income taxes. The $255 million property tax hike will initially be offset by the $300 million cut for businesses. If it passes, it would finally bring the state into compliance with its school funding requirements, and could free up state dollars for other priorities, such as transportation.

It would also create headaches for local property tax collectors, as they would be required to apply one assessment rate for school taxes, and another rate for everything else. For cash-strapped local governments that have been howling about the effects of Gallagher, this wouldn’t help at all.

For more: Read the measure and ballot analysis.

Election reforms

Colorado’s congressional districts.

Amendments Y and Z — Congressional and Legislative Redistricting

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

The issue: Should Colorado adopt new redistricting procedures aimed at preventing partisan gerrymandering?

Skewing district maps to your own party’s political benefit, or gerrymandering, has been a political bloodsport for 200 years in the United States. But Colorado’s top leaders say that after three of Colorado’s last four legislative maps wound up in court, they’re ready to try something new. These two amendments would overhaul the map-drawing process in Colorado by requiring that districts be drawn to promote competitive elections, while keeping intact communities, whether it’s one connected by political boundaries (such as a city or town) or social or demographic ones. They would also explicitly prohibit gerrymandering — though a recent U.S. Supreme Court court case suggests that may be a difficult charge to prove.

The ramifications: The changes would boost the influence of unaffiliated voters and non-partisan staffers in the map-drawing process. Time will tell if the changes are effective, or if political operatives will find ways to circumvent their intent.

For more: Read the referred measure and ballot analysis.Story: Will two redistricting ballot measures this year put an end to one of Colorado’s longest-running political feuds?

Amendment 75: Campaign contribution limits

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

At issue: Should candidates be allowed to raise more money when one of their opponents “directs” $1 million to their own campaign?

Currently, candidates running for statewide office can raise up to $1,150 from each donor, while down-ballot candidates are limited to $400. This would increase those limits fivefold — to $5,750 and $2,000, respectively — if one candidate in the race ponies up $1 million or more in contributions or loans to their own campaign.

Notably, the limits would increase for everyone — including the candidate that triggers it. And the amendment would also take effect if a candidate “facilitates or coordinates” third-party contributions worth more than $1 million, such as fundraising for a super-PAC.

The ramifications: This could help level the fundraising playing field for candidates facing a wealthy opponent. It could also inject even more money into a political system that’s awash in it. But the reality is there are already ways around the state’s existing campaign finance limits. Independent expenditure committees can raise unlimited amounts, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate on how the money is spent.

For more: Read the measure and the ballot analysis.

The Colorado Senate chamber on Sept. 18, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Amendment V — Assembly Age

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

The issue: Should 21-year-olds be allowed to serve in the Colorado state legislature?

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Today you have to be 25 or older to run for either the Colorado House or the state Senate. That’s a stricter age requirement than most states, so lawmakers this year are asking voters to change the state constitution to lower it.

The ramifications: Pretty minimal. Even in states with lower age limits, very few people younger than 25 run for office.

For more: Read the referred measure and ballot analysis.

Everything else

Proposition 111: Payday loans

Type: Change in state law. Simple majority required for passage.

At issue: Should payday lenders be banned from charging customers more than 36 percent interest?

Today, Colorado ostensibly limits payday loan interest to 50 percent. But when you factor in the additional fees lenders are allowed to charge, the average loan winds up charging a whopping 129 percent annual percentage yield. This would do away with the fees, and limit the interest to 36 percent APY. It would apply the same limits to lenders that operate online, by mail and by phone.

The ramifications: High interest rates can trap low-income residents in a crippling cycle of debt, where they’re left using one payday loan to pay off the last. Lower interest rates could help. They could also put payday lenders out of business if the rates are too low to compensate for the high risk of default by low-income borrowers.

For more: Read the measure and the ballot analysis.

Amendment W: Judicial retention

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

The issue: Should the state make minor tweaks to its judicial retention ballot?

This is what lawmakers often refer to as a “clean-up” measure — except it’s cleaning up the constitution, so voters get a say. It replaces male pronouns with the more inclusive “he or she” when asking voters if judges should stay in office. It also consolidates the ballot format a bit to avoid asking the same question over and over again.

The ramifications: County election clerks will use a little less paper when mailing judicial ballots.

For more: Read the referred measure and ballot analysis.

Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Amendment X: Industrial hemp

Type: Change in state constitution. 55 percent required for passage.

The issue: Should Colorado remove the definition of industrial hemp from its state constitution, and instead refer to state and federal law?

Currently, the state constitution defines industrial hemp as cannabis with trace amounts of THC, limited to no more than .3 percent. But with Congress now looking to regulate it as a crop instead of as an illegal drug, state lawmakers want to make sure the state’s farmers aren’t put at a competitive disadvantage by being forced to follow two different sets of rules. Deleting it from the constitution would allow lawmakers to define industrial hemp in state law and make adjustments as needed if federal regulations change.

The ramifications: This is a speculative change. Congress may do nothing — or may adopt the same definition Colorado already uses. But lawmakers want to be ready just in case.

For more: Read the referred measure and ballot analysis.

Amendment A: Slavery

Type: Change in state constitution. 50 percent required for passage because it is removing language, not adding it.

The issue: Should outdated language legalizing slavery as a form of criminal punishment be removed from the state constitution?

This one’s a repeat from 2016, when a citizen-led initiative attempted to delete the language and failed. The offending phrase says slavery is prohibited in Colorado, “except as a punishment for crime.” Supporters see this is an obvious fix. If the amendment passes, it would essentially read: slavery is prohibited. Full stop.

But the 2016 effort raised concerns that it could inadvertently make prison work programs unconstitutional. State lawmakers sought to address this by declaring in a resolution that the purpose was not to outlaw existing work opportunities for inmates.

The ramifications: Slavery is, of course, already illegal in the United States, so this one’s designed to be largely symbolic. But someone may try to test prison work programs in court if the language is removed.

For more: Read the referred measure and ballot analysis.

Updated 2:45 p.m. Oct. 1, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly describes the threshold for passage on Amendment A. It needs 50 percent for approval.

Rising Sun


Brian Eason

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @brianeason