Statewide ballot measures run the gamut from increased taxes to industrial hemp

Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 5:55 PM
Colorado voters will be asked to raise the state income tax to generate additional revenue for public schools.

There are already more than half a dozen questions we know voters will get to answer.

These nine, if passed, include measures that would remove the definition of “industrial hemp” from the state Constitution and also cut language about slavery from it. Two would change the way we draw our political boundaries – for Congress and the legislature – and yet another would change how our ballots actually look. Two more are competing for how we should fund our roads, and one would change how we fund education.

Meanwhile, the state is still determining whether other measures will make November’s ballot. Those include limiting payday loans and fracking, requiring governments to compensate property owners if they pass laws hurting their fair market values, and changing the state’s campaign finance limits.

In Colorado, it is relatively easy to change the state’s ever-changing Constitution, or change state laws, by putting questions on the ballot for voters to decide. These questions wind up before voters in one of two ways: By people gathering enough signatures – 98,492 of them this year – or by the General Assembly voting by a two-thirds majority to put them directly on. Those trying to change the Constitution, however, faced new hurdles. Because of a successful 2016 ballot measure to limit ballot measures, campaigns must gather signatures in all 35 Senate districts instead of just along the populous Front Range. Any measure that could change the Constitution also must pass with at least 55 percent of the vote. (A federal lawsuit by a coalition of groups seeking to challenge the new Senate districts requirement is currently pending. Ballot measures that just change state laws rather than the Constitution don’t have to follow the new higher hurdles.) All campaigns had to turn in their signatures by Aug. 6.

Before voters get their ballots in the mail in November, they will get an information booklet produced by state government called a Blue Book. The booklet is filled with analysis about the questions including arguments for and against each measure. Staff at the legislature vet the information in the Blue Book and conduct public hearings with interested parties about each measure to draft a summary of arguments for or against.

“It’s the most excruciating group writing process you’ve ever seen,” says Julia Jackson, a Legislative Council staffer who oversees ballot initiatives at the legislature.

Until then, here’s an early primer of what changes to the Constitution or state law we already know could come from the tip of your pen, either because lawmakers referred questions about them directly onto the ballot or because campaigns gathered enough signatures to get them there.

Should Colorado scrap the definition of ‘industrial hemp’ from the Constitution?

In the state where voters first legalized the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana, lawmakers agreed during the last session to now ask voters whether Colorado should remove the definition of “industrial hemp” from the state Constitution.

Colorado is the only state to put such a definition in its Constitution, according to hemp industry lobbyist Cindy Sovine, and, in it, industrial hemp is defined as “the plant of the genus cannabis and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration that does not exceed three-tenths 23 (0.3) percent on a dry weight basis.” Hemp is the non-psychoactive part of a cannabis plant. In other words, it cannot get you high. But it can be used as an agricultural product for anything from clothing to construction materials, health foods to biofuels.

Supporters of this measure say scrapping the definition of industrial hemp in our Constitution and moving it over to state law where it automatically aligns with the federal definition would allow Colorado’s hemp growers to more easily stay in step with federal policy and remain competitive with other states. If the definition stays in the Constitution and the federal definition of hemp changes, Colorado could find itself out of compliance and stuck that way until the next election when the question would likely again appear on the ballot.

Sovine said she hopes this measure passes in November – and that voters aren’t confused and think it is trying to get rid of hemp.

“That’s not the case,” she said. “The intention and support that came from the hemp community was really to give the state the flexibility, like every other state, to remain in (federal) compliance.”

There was no organized opposition to the measure, Sovine said. But Legislative Council, the department in the legislature that works on ballot measures, writes in a draft analysis that an argument against it could be that voters already approved of the definition of industrial hemp in 2012 when they passed the Amendment 64 ballot measure that legalized weed and passing this amendment would allow lawmakers to change it in a way voters didn’t initially intend when they first cast ballots on the big pot question six years ago.

Should Colorado change the way it draws districts for Congress and state lawmakers?

As part of a grand compromise among warring ideological factions in Colorado, these measures would change the way we draw our political boundaries for members of Congress and lawmakers to water down the influence of political parties and politicians and give more power to unaffiliated commissioners who approve maps. These separate measures – one for Congress and the other for the Legislature – are well-funded efforts with big-name backing.

The measures would give more weight to non-party members during the process of drawing the districts for Colorado’s seven members of Congress and 100 members of the Legislature – a redistricting process that takes place after each 10-year census. The next Census is in 2020, and because of the state’s booming population, Colorado could get an extra congressional seat.

Currently, the Legislature draws congressional maps. The new proposal would give that authority to a 12-member commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters. To approve a map, eight of the 12 commission members, including two unaffiliated members, would have to agree.

Should Colorado remove language in the state Constitution that currently allows slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for the conviction of a crime?

This is a throwback – a ballot question that failed to pass in 2016.

Currently, Colorado’s Constitution said, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The 2016 ballot measure – and this latest one – aimed to scrap that exception. Post-election data two years ago showed many voters left the question blank on their ballots, declining to answer it. And some voters that year said they just found the question too confusing.

Even New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler, who lives in Colorado, seemed spun around by the language. He had this to say about the amendment in 2016:

“On a ballot full of odd and confusing measures, I couldn’t untangle the language of Amendment T: ‘Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?’ Does yes mean yes, or does yes mean no? The election of 2016 disturbs me in many ways, and one of them is that I honestly cannot remember whether I voted for or against slavery.”

This time around, the language will be much less confusing, said Thornton Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, who helped get the measure on the ballot.

“We worked extremely hard to make it clearer to the voters that to vote ‘Yes’ means removal of the slavery exception from the Constitution,” he said.

Should the age requirement for lawmakers be lowered from 25 to 21?

According to Colorado’s Constitution, state legislators must be old enough to rent a car, not just old enough to buy a beer. Voters across Colorado this year will get to decide if they want to see younger lawmakers representing them in Denver. Lawmakers actually put this one on the ballot, too, so at least two-thirds of them want voters to weigh in.

A decade ago, voters rejected an identical question. Arguments for it are that those between 21 and 24 are adults under the law and voters should decide their maturity level. Arguments against are that they might lack the maturity and expertise to become effective in the Legislature.

Should there be a change to the ballot format for judicial retention elections to list justices and judges seeking retention by court type?

This measure would change the state Constitution to allow a change in the way the section of the ballot on judicial retention appears.

In Colorado, voters get to decide the fate of judges once they are appointed, and some tend to skip answering these questions altogether. Six years ago, a quarter of voters left the questions blank. And even when people do vote, 9News reported in 2016 that voters tend to retain judges even if those judges get bad reviews from a state panel that evaluates them and deems them unfit to serve.

Voters can see a how the retention ballot Q section looks now and what the proposed change is.

Judicial retention ballot Q

Arguments for this measure are that voting “Yes” will help make the ballot more concise and user-friendly in the way it asks voters to retain judges. An argument against the change could be that voters might confuse judicial retention with a regular election and believe justices are actually running against each other rather than just asking to stay on the bench.

Should the state income tax increase to raise money to fund public schools?

Backers of this measure to raise the corporate tax and income tax rates of those making more than $150,000 per year in Colorado to fund public schools became the first campaign to get on the ballot under the new rules making it harder to do so.

If passed, the measure would use the money from increased taxes to “increase base per-student funding, to pay for full-day kindergarten, and to put more money toward students with special needs, such as those learning English, those with disabilities, and those who are gifted and talented,” Chalkbeat Colorado reported.

The proposal would hike the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent and the income tax rate from a sliding scale between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. People who earn $500,000 or more would pay the highest.

Arguments for it are that Colorado is 28th in the nation for per-student funding, according to the National Education Association, with individual school districts varying widely on that front. Half the state’s school districts operate four days a week to save money and Colorado needs a sustainable revenue stream to fund education equitably. Arguments against include that the state should be able to find existing money in the budget to fund schools without raising taxes.

Should Colorado raise the state’s sales and use tax rate to pay for transportation?

This measure would raise the sales tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent for 20 years and allow Colorado to borrow up to $6 billion next year to pay for transportation projects. The total payment would be limited to $9.4 billion.

Backers of this measure include business interests like the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Club 20, a heavy-hitter Western Slope civic and business group based in Grand Junction.

Chamber President Kelly Brough has said the coalition behind the measure said the reason they focused on a sales tax is that a flood of tourists would also pay in to help fund transportation.

Arguments for include: Colorado’s road projects face a decade-long $9 billion backlog and costs for transportation projects outstrip what the state brings in from its 22-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn’t gone up since 1991. New revenue would give local governments flexibility in how they spend it.

Arguments against include: The state should be able to find existing money in its budget for transportation projects without raising sales taxes, which are already at 10 percent in some places, and money should go toward roads and not projects like bike lanes.

Should Colorado use bonds for highway projects without raising taxes?

This proposed measure, backed by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, would require the state to borrow up to $3.5 billion for up to 66 specific highway projects and limit the total amount to $5.2 billion over the next two decades. Colorado would also have to come up with a source of money to repay the borrowed amount and could only do so without raising taxes or fees.

The campaign to pass this measure goes by “Fix Our Damn Roads” and is in direct competition to the one the Denver Chamber supports.

Arguments for the measure: It will force the government to prioritize spending on road projects over other programs without raising taxes.

Arguments against: It would divert money from existing programs, and borrowing money is expensive because of interest rates.