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A 2018 Colorado ballot. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A group opposing a question on the November ballot to repeal Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment has filed a lawsuit against state lawmakers who made sweeping changes last week to language about the initiative in the state-issued voter guide. 

Protect Our Homes Colorado, the group opposing Amendment B, is seeking to stop the printing of the so-called blue book until alterations are made that ensure descriptions about the initiative and reasons for and against voting for it are fair and nonpartisan.

Clay Vigoda, who is leading Protect Our Homes Colorado, said the rewrite turned the blue book language into “campaign propaganda.”

“For them to go in there and then wholesale change this and put these lies and inaccuracies and nod-and-wink language that is meant to keep (voters) from understanding that this will actually cost them money out of their pocket is unconscionable,” Vigoda said. 

The blue book is sent to every voter in Colorado.

The General Assembly’s Legislative Council Committee, a panel of top lawmakers, last week met to discuss blue book language drafted by nonpartisan Capitol staff through consultation with groups for and against the 11 questions on the November ballot. The most significant changes they made were around the Gallagher Repeal initiative, which was referred to the ballot by state lawmakers during the recent lawmaking term.

In fact, lawmakers nearly completely rejected the nonpartisan language offered and rewrote the descriptions around the Gallagher repeal question and the arguments for and against supporting it.

The vote for change was bipartisan, with only three Republicans on the 18-member committee voting against the rewrite. 

MORE: What you need to know about TABOR, Gallagher, Amendment 23 and the hidden forces that constrain spending in Colorado

For starters, lawmakers changed the title of the ballot question in the blue book from “Modify Property Taxes” to “Repeal Gallagher Amendment.” And while the original version contained 144 references to taxes, the revised one has just 91.

The changes were made in a matter of minutes and with limited debate. 

You can see the before and after versions of the blue book language for yourself.

“The final draft of the ballot information booklet includes … highly prejudicial and misleading statements, both in the neutral analysis section as well as the ‘for’ section, which are talking points pulled directly from proponent campaign material,” the lawsuit says. “… A fair and impartial presentation of the arguments for and against can and should be presented to that people can objectively make up their own minds.”

Specifically, opponents of the repeal effort allege that the new language “tricks” voters into thinking their property taxes won’t be changed by the initiative. As home values go up, people will have to pay more, the opponents point out.

The Gallagher Amendment, approved by voters in 1982, is the extremely complicated system that governs Colorado’s property tax rates. Both Republicans and Democrats despise it for how it causes financial strain and uncertainty for entities like school districts and fire departments.

More than 68 percent of voters in Eagle County approved Greater Eagle Fire Protection District’s ballot initiative seeking relief under the Gallagher Amendment. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The amendment dictates that home values can make up no more than 45 percent of the state property tax base, while non-residential property owners have to contribute 55 percent. The effect is that residential assessment rates have steadily fallen since Gallagher was enacted, which proponents of the amendment highlight as keeping money in Coloradans’ pockets.

Colorado voters are loath to approve anything that may increase their taxes which means the changes could prove to benefit backers of the Gallagher repeal. “Legislators already put their hand on the scale by passing incredibly biased ballot language,” Michael Fields, who leads the conservative, pro-Gallagher Colorado Rising State Action, told Colorado Politics.

MORE: Now that Colorado lawmakers have put Gallagher repeal on the ballot, will they actually be able to pass it?

House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who brought one of the amendments changing the blue book language, defended the changes on Wednesday.

“Slowing down the blue book process is a disservice to the Colorado voters,” Garnett told The Colorado Sun. “The bipartisan changes that we made in legislative council were supported by Democrats and Republicans because the language simplified the very complex issue of Gallagher. Making sure the voters understand what they are voting on is important. This feels like a frivolous process to slow down providing information to voters.”

Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, also led the push for the changes. He said he thought voters would be better served by the rewrite.

“It is a clearer and full picture of the impacts of Amendment B,” Cooke said at last week’s hearing.

While the vote for the changes may have been bipartisan, by changing the blue book description of the initiative lawmakers injected politics into the process. Many of the legislators who backed the alterations also supported putting the Gallagher Amendment repeal question on the ballot. 

The repeal effort is seen as a way to help local governments in Colorado better weather the coronavirus crisis, which has led to a massive depletion in tax revenue alongside an economic collapse.

The lawsuit from Protect Our Homes Colorado, which is made up of both Democrats and Republicans, was filed in Denver District Court. 

MORE: Read the lawsuit here.

“I think they just didn’t do this right,” said former House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, a Democrat who is part of the legal action, “and that’s why we’re suing them.”

The blue book language is slated to be sent to the state’s printer on Thursday, so the clock is running down for opponents of the Gallagher repeal to secure the changes they’d like to see. 

Vigoda, who leads Protect Our Homes Colorado, said he’s confident the court will see that there was wrongdoing and hastily.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have faced criticism for changing nonpartisan staff’s language in the blue book. In 2016, legislators received blowback after making alterations to the descriptions around initiatives to create a presidential primary in Colorado and allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul