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Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

When Democrats in the Colorado legislature this year unveiled their marquee bill to enact new transportation fees to pay for road and transit projects, the measure’s conservative opponents had a quick, confident response: See you at the ballot box. 

The opposition wasn’t necessarily talking about trying to unseat Democrats, however. They were vowing to bring a ballot question to unwind the legislation, a route conservatives are increasingly using to influence policy in Colorado. 

Colorado Republicans have been unable to get many candidates elected over the past two election cycles, but they have seen some success by bringing and opposing ballot measures, mostly around taxes. 

Last year, for example, Jon Caldara, who leads the conservative Independence Institute, secured an income-tax reduction through Proposition 116. Michael Fields, who helms Colorado Rising Action, a conservative fiscal policy group, championed the passage of Proposition 117, which requires voter approval of certain new fees. 

“A lot of our ballot issues are trying to address things that we don’t like that the legislature is doing,” Fields said. “I think there’s a disconnect between what the legislature thinks people want and what they actually want.”

Fields is set to land two measures on the November ballot, one slashing property taxes and another requiring more legislative oversight of how money, like sums collecte from legal settlements or received from the federal government, 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 on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Michael Fields

Democrats used to dominate the ballot wars, but the tide is shifting. Tyler Sandberg, a Republican operative who leads the conservative education nonprofit Ready Colorado, said the GOP is pursuing ballot questions as part of a “sea change in how Republicans approach policy here.” 

“Again and again and again, it’s always been liberal initiatives on the ballot,” Sandberg said. “Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. It takes on extra importance when Democrats have a stranglehold over the entirety of state government. I think Republicans should have done this 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’s had in more than 80 years

But it wasn’t always that way, and Democrats frequently turned to ballot measures to get their priorities passed when they couldn’t at the legislature. 

Amendment 70, on the 2016 ballot, is one of the best recent examples of how Democrats have used the ballot measure process to advance their policy agenda. The amendment, which passed by a wide margin, raised Colorado’s minimum wage to $12 an hour. 

At the time, Republicans still controlled the state Senate, meaning only legislation that had GOP support could make it to the governor’s desk and be signed into law. The measure was a way around that barrier, and was also seen by Democrats as a way to boost voter turnout. 

Republicans last year backed the passage of Amendment 76, which said that only U.S. citizens over the age of 18 can vote in Colorado elections — a measure that mostly duplicates what’s already in state law. However many saw the amendment as a GOP ploy to boost turnout and excite their base in a year where the presidency and a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado were up for grabs.

Democrats passed two bills this year guarding against the threat they feel is posed by the conservative ballot initiatives, especially when it comes to taxes.

One measure, House Bill 1321, requires voters to be prominently informed of which programs would be affected by ballot questions decreasing taxes, and how much money would be slashed. The other, Senate Bill 293, would effectively neuter Fields’ property-tax reduction measure

“It’s very easy to offer people free money and offer them an unrealistic free ride,” said state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Joint Budget Committee and opposes the tax-slashing measures. “But there is no free ride here. Making tax policy at the ballot typically leads to bad outcomes.”

Hansen said there is a reason Colorado has representative government.

“The average citizen doesn’t want to make decisions about a thousand line items in the state budget,” he said.

Conservatives are backing two initiatives slated to appear on the 2021 ballot.

Initiative 19 seeks to mandate more legislative oversight of how money, including from legal settlements and the federal government, is spent. Initiative 27 seeks to lower property taxes.

Carol Hedges, who leads the liberal-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute, pointed out that conservatives have only had limited recent success at passing ballot measures. An effort last year to ban abortions in Colorado at 22 weeks of pregnancy failed, and in 2018 voters rejected a measure to authorize bonds to pay for transportation projects as an alternative to new taxes and fees.

Hedges also raised concerns about who is funding the initiatives — donors who often don’t have to be, and therefore aren’t, made public. 

“The fact that Michael Fields and Jon Caldara continue to put ballot measures before voters does not necessarily mean that they’re going to approve them,” she said. “It just means that those folks who have donors who are willing to continue to devote millions and millions and millions of dollars to get things on the ballot to pursue a philosophy of ‘if you can’t afford it, you can’t get it.’’’

An independent expenditure committee formed to back the property tax measure this year, aptly called Cut Property Taxes, raised $875,000 through July 28. All of that came from Unite for Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that doesn’t have to report its donors. 

The Committee for Spending Transparency, which is backing the spending approval measure, raised about $1.4 million through July 28, virtually all of which also came from Unite for Colorado.

(Both Democrats and Republicans in Colorado rely on dark-money groups, nonprofits that don’t have to report their donors, to bolster their campaigns.)

Kristi Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, sent a note to Republicans last week pointing out that the state party has endorsed both of Fields’ ballot measures, encouraging followers to gear up for the November election. 

Burton Brown equated the importance of the measures to local elections, like school board and city council races, on the ballot this year.

Kristi Burton Brown, chair of the Colorado GOP, speaks to the Foothills Republicans club in Golden on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Jesse Mallory, who leads Americans for Prosperity Colorado, said it’s hypocritical for Democrats to criticize conservatives for pushing ballot measures. 

Just last year, progressives used a ballot initiative to implement a paid family and parental leave program in Colorado after repeated failures at the legislature. They have also tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to pass a host of tax-increase measures in recent years. Because of the state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, all tax increases must be approved by voters.

“Democrats used it for years when they couldn’t get their policies passed at the legislature,” he said. “The irony I see is that when they do that it’s pure and ‘power to the people,’ but when we do it it’s ‘oh my God, what are you doing?’”

Mallory also blasted Hansen for suggesting that tax policy should be mostly left to the legislature. “The idea that people don’t have any concept of this, I think it’s incredibly insulting,” he said.

The challenge for Republicans now is finding a way to turn their successes with ballot initiatives into wins for the party’s candidates. 

“Republicans I don’t think have done a good job of telling people what they are running on and what they would do if they are elected,” Fields said. “I think the Republican Party here is starting to work on that.”

For now, Republicans will take what they can.

Caldara, who leads the Independence Institute, and Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling, are gathering signatures for a 2022 ballot question seeking to slash the state’s income tax rate to 4.4% from 4.55%.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

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....