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Sizing up ballot measures

Nathan Rodriguez
illustration by Amanda Swanson
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You know there might be too many items on a ballot when the state and even some candidates for office struggle to keep their verbal algebra on point.

Colorado has the longest ballot in the United States this year, with 14 initiatives ” Amendments 46 through 59 ” and four referenda, from L to O. The initiatives arose by petition, while the referenda emerged from the Legislature.

Amendments 53, 55, 56 and 57 still appear on the Secretary of State Web site and will appear on ballots next month, but they’ve since been “withdrawn,” so no votes will be tallied. Meanwhile, Sen. Ken Gordon reported after labor and the mainstream business community negotiated earlier this month, the business community agreed to oppose Amendments 47, 49 and 54, but stopped short of withdrawing the measures. In recent days though, some in the business community have renewed their support for the amendments.

These aren’t the easiest things to remember, and even a couple candidates for office privately confessed uncertainty over which items would change existing state statutes, which amendments were which, and the total number of ballot measures: It’s by no means an indictment of their competence, only a reminder of how long it may take some voters to cast a ballot in a couple weeks.

We spoke with four candidates, Ken Brenner (D) and Al White (R), who are competing in District 8 of the state Senate, and Ali Hasan (R) and Christine Scanlan (D), who are battling to represent District 56 in the state House.

They were each asked the same open-ended question: “Which of the ballot measures are most important to you, and why?”

And while none of the candidates mentioned Amendment 48, perhaps the most controversial of them all ” defining “personhood” as the moment of conception ” each had a few immediate, visceral reactions to some of the ballot measures.

Their opinions are interesting not only for the purpose of shedding light on the ballot measures themselves, but also acting as a mirror upon the candidates who seek to represent Eagle County on the state level; how they frame issues, the interests they support and their priorities.

Between the four candidates, seven ballot measures were mentioned.

Amendments 47 and 49 would act to restrict labor unions, with 47 removing the requirement to join unions and pay dues, and 49 prohibiting state and local government from deducting union dues from paychecks.

Brenner said he opposed both amendments because labor unions ensure the rights of employees are upheld.

“For good wages with benefits, health care, overtime pay and a safe workplace, you can thank unions for that,” he said. “These are big businesses opposing workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The unions should be commended for pulling their measures (53, 55, 56, 57), and I’m very disappointed the Right to Work people have proceeded.”

In short, Amendment 47 removes the incentive for employees to join unions by taking away the requirement to pay dues. All employees would still receive the benefits of being in the union without having to pay union dues.

For her part, Scanlan said she opposed Amendment 47 because it “would (be) extraordinarily difficult for our state.”

Hasan said he felt Amendment 47 “goes too far,” but still supports the measure.

“I’m getting frustrated with the amount of empowerment that’s taking place with unions right now because we’re historically not a union state,” he said. “Now suddenly Governor Ritter and the rest want everything unionized, but the state economy has been excellent without unions.”

He added his personal experience has informed his opinion of unions as ineffective; first in filmmaking, as he said unions have prompted producers to move their sets to Vancouver and South Africa; second, as a former member of a teacher’s union in California.

“I just don’t think the benefits are worth the money you pay into it,” Hasan said. “It goes too far, but I’m willing to vote for it just to put an end to mass unionization.”

Amendment 50 would loosen restrictions on casinos to offer longer hours, higher stakes and additional games, with the increased tax revenue funding community colleges, an interesting trade-off, only discussed by White.

“It deserves to be passed,” he said. “I have reservations about the way it’s written, and would like to see it written so the money goes to the entire educational system instead of just community colleges, but my reservations aren’t strong enough to reject it.”

“Have you heard about Governor Ritter’s big energy tax hike?”

“Yeah, it passes right through to the consumer!”

This adorable scare tactic has cropped up in both TV and radio commercials, and may be the most ham-fisted attempt by a special interest group to sway voters in its direction this election.

Sorry ” had to get that off my chest.

To their credit, when the candidates discussed the amendment, they only expressed concerns about the wording instead of the dubious “pass through” assertion.

Amendment 58, championed by Gov. Ritter, would eliminate a tax break for large oil and gas companies (while exempting smaller companies), and use those proceeds to fund college scholarships, renewable energy and clean water projects.

Proponents argue Colorado has one of the lowest tax rates on oil and gas companies, while Wyoming’s rate ” which doubles that of Colorado ” allocates enough funding for its graduating seniors to attend college, provided they meet academic standards.

Brenner said supporting Amendment 58 was critical for Colorado schools.

“It’s not the way I would have written it, I’d say is a fair characterization,” he said, adding the Western Slope didn’t get what it deserved. “But I still support ending the tax subsidies to the wealthiest and most profitable industry in the world right now, and directing those funds toward scholarships for higher education.”

Hasan called his support of 58 “tentative,” and referenced the argument that gas and oil prices would rise.

“Opponents say oil prices will go up, but I don’t believe that because the majority of the gas goes to the Midwest ” Missouri, Illinois, Indiana ” so their gas is going to go up, but ours won’t,” he said. “I’ve been out (to the Western Slope), and I’m concerned about the environmental impact (of oil and gas companies). Their health care and public school systems are overwhelmed, and I’m supportive of the amendment if the money stays in the local community, because they need it.”

White immediately mentioned he felt Amendment 58 was poorly written, and said he opposed it.

“We should give the oil and gas industry a year to digest new rulings and regulations, and then I think they’d be more willing to sit down and consider a question that would increase the severance tax, and they wouldn’t be as oppositional as they are now,” he said. “If we offered to let them participate in writing the question, they’d support it in a way that puts money back into the communities through roads, infrastructure, water, the sewer system ” all the things impacted by drilling efforts.”

White said his time as a member of the budget committee informs his judgment that the additional funds “won’t help universities keep the lights on” ” a more pressing need. He argued universities need help reducing their operating costs, and would be forced to increase tuition.

“So at this time, I’d prefer to see it fail, and we can take another shot on it the next available election year,” he said. “It’s considered a tax increase, so it should qualify for the ballot next November. I’ll vote ‘no’ now, and we can address it in a year.”

Brenner said he strongly supports Amendment 59 because it ensures schools are adequately funded, with surpluses from TABOR earmarked for a savings account for education.

“In the long run, we’ll see increased revenues to education without raising taxes,” he said. “It removes the spending limit for education that’s established by Amendment 23, and preserves the most important part of TABOR, which is the taxpayer’s right to approve new taxes.”

In the House District 56 race, Scanlan and Hasan couldn’t be farther apart.

Scanlan said her years in education have made her a strong advocate for the amendment, calling it a “tool to help find a sustainable funding mechanism for education in the long term.”

Hasan said he is completely against the amendment, calling it “evil,” “awful” and “very manipulative.”

“It takes away the core foundation of TABOR, which is a refund in times of a surplus, and that’s completely wrong. People should invest their own money or keep it, because the government doesn’t invest it better than we can ” just look at what’s happened in Washington, D.C.”

The final measure, which was mentioned by all four candidates, was Referendum O. The measure would raise the standards for future initiatives to appear on the ballot, making it less likely Colorado voters would again face such a lengthy list of initiatives on Election Day.

“This is especially important to us as a rural district,” Scanlan said. “Right now, people can just stand outside a King Soopers in Denver, get all the signatures they need, and largely neglect even coming up to this part in Colorado.

White said he’s supported measures like Referendum O for the last five years.

“I think our constitution has gotten itself in an unfortunate situation because of conflicting provisions and irrelevancies that are locked up in our constitution,” he said. “It’s all because there’s no difference in the threshold for creating a constitutional question on the ballot by initiative (from voters) or by statute (from legislators).”

Brenner agreed, adding, “Referendum O is probably the one thing that anyone who follows the Colorado state government agrees on,” he said. “There’s always something that will unify voters at the polls, and that may be it this year.”

But while many people view the ease with which initiatives appear on the ballot as a negative, Hasan sees it as a sign of a vibrant democracy.

“It’s a very important issue, and I’m not very supportive of it. It takes power away from the people and puts it in the hands of politicians,” he said. “I like the idea of the little guy and people outside the system bringing up issues, and not just leaving it up to the Statehouse.”

But aren’t there too many?

“A lot of people say there are too many initiatives, and I completely disagree. We’re not stupid. If people want to put something on a ballot, it’s a good thing for a healthy democracy.”

Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com.


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