• Original Reporting
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Voters drop off their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters on Tuesday rejected a conservative-backed ballot measure seeking to give state lawmakers more oversight over how to spend money from the federal government and lawsuit settlements.

With more than 1.1 million ballots counted as of 10:30 p.m., Amendment 78 was failing with 44% voting in favor of the measure and 56% against it. The results are incomplete, but the constitutional amendment needed approval from 55% of voters to pass. 

Voters in the conservative strongholds of Mesa and Douglas counties were rejecting the measure. Amendment 78 was only barely above water in El Paso County, Colorado’s most populous conservative county.

“I think on 78 it was always going to be an uphill battle,” said Michael Fields, the architect and main proponent of the measure. He also leads the conservative fiscal nonprofit Colorado Rising Action. 

“These were confusing, tricky questions,” Scott Wasserman, an Amendment 78 opponent who leads the liberal-leaning Bell Policy Center, said of the three statewide measures on the 2021 ballot.

The Colorado General Assembly has an appropriation process to decide how state tax revenue is spent each year, but certain non-state sources like federal grant money, private donations and other “custodial funds” from outside the state government aren’t subject to that process. 

For example, the $1.7 billion in federal relief dollars that Colorado received last year from the CARES Act wasn’t subject to the legislative appropriation process. It was spent by Gov. Jared Polis’ office through an executive order, angering Republicans who complained they were left out of the decision making.

“We’re excited Colorado voters saw through this measure,” said Kathy White, deputy director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute. “They recognized last year, with COVID relief dollars that came into this state, the importance of getting that to their communities quickly and efficiently.”

Proponents of Amendment 78 said it would have provided greater transparency and accountability in state spending by requiring lawmakers to determine how the state spends custodial money, which could affect federal emergency relief and grant dollars, money from legal settlements, funding for transportation projects that are currently allocated by an independent commission and private gifts and donations, like those collected by public colleges and universities.

“I just want more oversight over where the money is going and what it’s doing,” said Dom Galluccio, a 32-year-old unaffiliated voter from Denver who cast his ballot at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building on Tuesday afternoon. 

Karen Hutchinson (left) of Larimer County reads a ballot aloud to assist her friend Sonia Studer of Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at Christ Church United Methodist in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The ballot measure would have created an appropriation process where members of the public can provide input. It also would have placed all custodial funds into a centralized account, with interest from that account flowing into the state’s general fund.

Opponents called it a political ploy to stymie a Democratic administration and said it would create unnecessary work for lawmakers, who already review custodial spending broadly. 

“It sounded like more red tape,” said Denver resident Sam Heiden, a 26-year-old Democrat, after voting in person Tuesday. 

Some voters said they voted against the measure because they didn’t understand it. 

“I tried reading about it, but I still didn’t understand it enough,” Douglas Evans, an unaffiliated voter from Littleton, said after casting his ballot.

The Committee for Spending Transparency raised and spent nearly $1.3 million. Most of that cash went to collect signatures to get the measure on the ballot. All of the money came from the dark-money nonprofit Unite for Colorado, which doesn’t disclose its donors.

Colorado Sun staff writer Erica Breunlin and correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report. 

Thy Vo

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo