While political pundits have their focus on candidates for office now, of equal importance are proposed statewide ballot initiatives with municipal impacts. Following are personal opinions on a few of these, reflecting my views based on extensive experience with ballot initiatives. And let the record reflect: I do not - do not - favor the initiative process. Never have, and never will. I believe in representative democracy; the initiative process is its antithesis.
Citizens, as well as the legislature, have the right to propose changes to state statute and to the Colorado Constitution through the initiative and referendum process. It is a state constitutional right and has been since the early 1900s. At least half of the states (mostly in the West) have this process.
All citizen-initiated measures must go through a vetting process, which includes a substantive policy/legal review, fiscal analysis, and writing a summary and title - all of which are subject to legal challenge before the Colorado Supreme Court. One such challenge, but certainly not the only one, is whether a measure violates the “single subject” rule. This governs the scope of a measure to ensure it covers only the topic at hand and does not “log-roll” other topics into the proposal.
An initiated statutory change requires 98,492 registered elector signatures (5 percent of the number of all votes cast for secretary of state in the last election). An initiated constitutional amendment requires a requisite number of 2 percent of the registered electors in all 35 state senate districts, and can only be approved with a minimum of 55 percent of the votes cast. Right now, portions of this new signature requirement are being challenged in federal court.
If the legislature wants to refer a change to the constitution, it requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber (24 in the Senate and 44 in the House). Referred statutes require a simple majority of votes (18 in the Senate and 33 in the House).
Proponents of initiated measures have until early April to go through the vetting process and, unless otherwise noted, until early August for signatures to be submitted to the office of Secretary of State Wayne Williams for verification.
General Assembly Proposals
It is too early to predict what the legislature might put forward. However, one measure that the League is endorsing is a measure to “de-Bruce” severance taxes. This will protect things such as the Energy Impact Fund, water funding, and parts of the budget for the Department of Natural Resources.
There has been talk about changing the Gallagher Amendment this session. This would be a constitutional amendment to address the residential ratio decline that is severely affecting local governments, especially in rural areas and including municipalities, heavily dependent upon property taxes as their prime revenue source. We have got to tackle this issue; however, the political hurdles are daunting.
Here are some proposals with municipal implications:
- Disposition of government fines – This proposed state law would require, starting this year, that all state and local government fines, fees, and surcharges would be directed first “in restitution to an actual victim” or “to a registered and legitimate charity” of the victim’s choice. Proponents have until March 28 to submit their signatures (98,492) and have them verified by the Secretary of State’s Office for submission onto the ballot. This is a terrible idea because of the fiscal impacts on cities and towns. It also is poorly written – it is not even entirely clear who is a victim in the language.
- Transportation funding – Two competing statutory measures are surfacing. One would raise the state sales tax rate for the Colorado Department of Transportation, county, and municipal needs, including transit. It will be similar to legislation supported by CML last legislative session. Another proposal authorizes raising $3.5 billion in revenue bonds from “reallocating priorities” in the existing state budget. The League has been heavily involved in the crafting of a meaningful funding solution. I don’t know where this is all going to wind up.
- Takings – This would require just compensation for any state or local government regulation that has the effect to “reduce the fair market value of property for uses allowable at the time the owner acquired title.” This is a constitutional amendment, and it is plain awful. I put this in the category of TABOR - I know what it says, but I don’t know what it means.
- Oil and gas setbacks – This statutory measure would require that new oil and gas development not on federal land be located at least 2,500 feet from an “occupied structure or vulnerable area.” There are some local government requirements embedded in the proposal. I think there are some serious local control preemptions we need to be careful about here.
- Severance taxes – This state law would alter the oil and gas severance tax by eliminating the ad valorem property tax credit and by reducing exemptions for certain types of wells. It also would change the distribution of existing revenues to some new state-administered accounts directed to K-12 and to medical care for people suffering “negative health impacts” from oil and gas production. I have felt for a long time that we ought to have a serious discussion about our severance tax rates, especially the ad valorem tax offset; however, in this proposal, I am seriously concerned about the fiscal impacts upon the Department of Local Affairs, Department of Natural Resources, and our direct distribution formula. All of that needs further and serious examination.
- Growth caps – This change to state law would impose residential housing limits on Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, and Weld counties, and the municipalities within those counties. There is a single subject challenge pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. Taking a whack at growth in this sloppy manner is fraught with peril - Ugh!
The CML Executive Board will consider positions on these when and if they certify.
For now, if you are approached to sign a petition, just remember this. Do you like to sign blank checks?
Think before you ink! As I was once told by a former governor, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.