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Dozens of high-stakes initiatives could appear on Colorado’s 2024 ballot

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Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) A major set of election reforms, constitutional protections for abortion rights and a series of tit-for-tat battles over property taxes and environmental regulation top the long list of measures that may appear on Colorado ballots in November.

“There’s going to be about 47 ballot measures on a really long ballot,” joked Theresa Conley, chair of the state’s Initiative Title Setting Review Board, last week during the panel’s final biweekly meeting to hear proposed initiatives.

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If that ends up being an overstatement, it might not be by much. For now, more than 50 different initiatives remain in play for the November ballot, though major hurdles remain for most of them, and history suggests a significant number will be withdrawn.

The first step in qualifying for the ballot is to win approval from the Title Board, a three-member panel of officials designated by the secretary of state, attorney general and the legislative branch. A majority of the board must determine that an initiative meets a constitutional requirement that measures address only a single subject, and can be given a clear “title” — a one-sentence description of the proposal that will appear on signature petitions and ballots.

Once a title is set, statutory initiatives must earn signatures from at least 124,238 registered voters, and then need a simple majority to pass. Those seeking to amend the state Constitution face two additional hurdles: they must collect signatures from at least 2 percent of registered voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts, and the measure must be approved by at least 55 percent of voters.

Over 100 measures have been given the nod from the Title Board during the 2024 election cycle, though many of them were variations on the same proposal and dozens have already been withdrawn or expired. And at least one high-profile initiative campaign has already failed to collect enough signatures: Backers of the Colorado Life Initiative, an anti-abortion measure that would have defined life as beginning at conception, told CBS News last week that they were only able to collect “tens of thousands” of signatures.

The deadline to file a proposed initiative was April 5. Following the Title Board’s last regular hearing of the election cycle last week, another handful of measures may be approved by the board in a special re-hearing this week, or by the Colorado Supreme Court, which often has the final say on ballot title decisions. Initiatives approved for signature-gathering must submit their petitions for certification no later than Aug. 5.

Election overhaul

Some of the most fundamental changes proposed by 2024’s bumper crop of ballot measures are those contained in an election overhaul package backed by centrist megadonor Kent Thiry, former CEO of Denver-based DaVita.

The reforms would abolish Colorado’s current party primary and assembly system for federal and state offices, replacing it with an all-candidate or “jungle” primary election. The four candidates who receive the most primary votes would advance to the general election, which would be decided by ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting. Under this method, voters would rank as many or as few of the four candidates as they wish, and candidates with the fewest first-place votes are eliminated until one candidate receives a majority.

Thiry’s Unite America group — which says it “invests in nonpartisan election reform to foster a more representative and functional government” — successfully persuaded Alaska voters to adopt the system in 2020, and it was used for the first time there in the 2022 midterms. It was widely credited with former Governor Sarah Palin’s loss to Democrat Mary Peltola in the race for Alaska’s U.S. House seat, as well as with Senator Lisa Murkowski’s defeat of a more conservative challenger.

The system’s perceived impact in Alaska has made ranked choice voting the target of furious criticism from right-wing Republicans, who decry it as an effort to “rig” elections. Others, including some prominent Colorado Democrats, argue the proposed system would privilege wealthy independent candidates — including Thiry himself, a former Republican who mulled a run for governor in 2018.

Thiry’s group is represented by attorneys from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the powerful Denver-based lobbying giant, and operatives from 76 Group, a consulting firm with a long list of Republican and corporate clients. The group has filed dozens of versions of their proposal with the Title Board over the last several months, varying in minute details such as whether it would include a requirement for “timely reporting” of results on election night, or apply ranked choice voting to the presidential general election.

After reversing itself on the issue several times, the Title Board has in at least one instance approved a comprehensive version of Thiry’s election overhaul, combining the all-candidate primary and ranked choice voting in the general election in one ballot measure. Opponents have repeatedly filed objections arguing that such a measure violates the single-subject rule and accused Thiry’s group of “logrolling,” or lumping together multiple policies that wouldn’t win approval from voters on their own.

The effort has also spawned a series of countermeasures by two Republican activists. One would put a constitutional prohibition on the use of ranked choice voting by any state or local government in Colorado, mirroring laws recently enacted in a number of GOP-run states. The others aim to enact a constitutional right of candidates to gain access to the ballot “through a partisan political party caucus and assembly process” or “through the endorsement of a political party.”

Abortion rights

Backed by Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom, a coalition of groups including Cobalt and the ACLU of Colorado, Proposed Initiative 89 would recognize the right to an abortion under the Colorado Constitution. It would also allow the procedure to be covered by health insurance plans for state and local government employees, repealing a 40-year old constitutional ban that currently prohibits state dollars from being used to pay for abortions.

Organizers announced last week that they had submitted over 230,000 signatures in support of the measure to the Colorado secretary of state’s office, which will determine the sufficiency of the petitions by May 17. As a constitutional amendment, which can’t be repealed by a vote of the Legislature, the measure would need to be approved by 55 percent of voters to pass.

Property taxes

Conservative groups are pushing to enact a 4 percent annual cap on the growth of property tax revenues, unless voters authorize their local taxing district to retain the excess revenue. Several different versions of the measure are pending.

In February, Colorado Concern, an influential business group governed by a board of Colorado-based corporate executives and wealthy Republican donors, said it would join the conservative nonprofit Advance Colorado in backing the 4 percent cap.

An initial set of measures filed by the two groups proposed slight variations on a mechanism that would require the state to reimburse local districts using the state’s general fund, at a cost of around $750 million annually. Dave Davia, Colorado Concern’s CEO, said in a press release that the mechanism was “balanced and thoughtful” and “very intentionally protected funding increases for teachers, firefighters and other local districts.”

But after the Title Board ruled that the measure’s funding backfill violated the single-subject rule, Davia and Advance Colorado’s Michael Fields last week filed a version of their measure without any such mechanism. Separately, Davia and Fields have introduced a measure reducing property tax assessment rates, which a nonpartisan state analysis estimates would reduce funding for local districts by over $3.1 billion annually by 2026. Both have been approved by the Title Board.

At 0.55 percent, Colorado’s effective property tax rates are the third-lowest of any state in the nation, according to data from the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation.

A series of measures seeking to counteract the impacts of these anti-tax initiatives are also pending. All are backed by Scott Wasserman, the outgoing president of the liberal Bell Policy Center, and have won initial approval from the Title Board.

One would allow the state to transfer its own excess tax revenue — the amount usually refunded to voters under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — to local taxing districts to offset any decreases in property tax revenue caused by the 4 percent cap. Another would require a vote approving the 4 percent cap in each local taxing district before it went into effect in that district; a third would automatically adjust property tax assessment rates upward in the event of school funding shortfalls; and a fourth would enact a new luxury property tax on homes valued at over $2 million, at the rate necessary to offset any decrease in funding from the cap.

Anti-LGBTQ measures

Two measures sponsored by Erin Lee, a Fort Collins anti-LGBTQ activist who since 2022 has made a string of appearances in conservative media crusading against what she calls the “indoctrination” of children by “predators” at public schools, have been approved by the Title Board. One would require Colorado public schools to notify parents when their child shows signs of “experiencing gender incongruence” at school, and another would codify a parent’s “legal right to review their child’s school records.”

Lee, her husband and two other parents sued the Poudre School District in federal court last year, alleging that her daughter’s experience with an after-school Genders and Sexualities Alliance club, which “introduced concepts of gender fluidity and various types of sexual attraction,” violated their constitutional rights as parents. Their characterization of some of the club’s discussions and materials has been disputed, and their lawsuit was dismissed.

Another set of ballot measures targeting transgender Coloradans has attracted high-profile support from prominent Republican politicians. One would prohibit transgender athletes from competing in “a sport or athletic event designated as being for females, women or girls.” The other proposes a sweeping ban on medical procedures and hormone treatments for transgender people under the age of 18.

The Title Board, however, ruled that both measures violate the single-subject rule, and upheld their decisions again last week, prompting criticism from Greg Lopez, the GOP’s nominee for a 4th Congressional District special election in June, and former state Senator Kevin Lundberg.

“I believe it is doing a great disservice to we the people in Colorado, who reserve the right to make law independent of the General Assembly,” Lundberg said. “I’m saying this to you very directly, because I guarantee I’m going to say this publicly — you need to know that if … you’re going to say this is not a single subject, that’s a violation of our Constitution.”

Hearings on the anti-transgender initiatives have been marked by unusually tense scenes at the normally tranquil Title Board, including a session last month during which supporters of the initiatives shouted at board members while filming the hearing with their phones. Conley, the board chair, told Lundberg that his comments about speaking “publicly” were part of a pattern she found “unnerving.”

“We have put in a tremendous amount of effort, we are doing our best, we are seeking to be consistent. I am constantly concerned about being doxxed online,” Conley said. “People can always comment on public processes. It is in the news all the time. But to be reminded and directed at it, I can’t help but think that there’s a little bit of a hidden message there that is not appreciated and won’t be tolerated.”

Oil and gas wars

In an echo of past Colorado elections, the stage is set once again this year for a ballot clash between the oil and gas industry and environmental advocates, both of which have have filed multiple proposed initiatives.

One industry-backed proposal seeks to ban state and local governments from restricting “energy choice,” a move that would halt efforts to phase out the use of natural gas in homes and businesses, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. A separate, broader measure would amend the Constitution to prohibit restrictions on gas-powered vehicles, appliances, lawn equipment or any other “products or services currently in common use based on the energy source of that product or service.”

Other measures backed by the same proponents include limitations on what rules the state can pursue to reduce ozone-forming pollutants; a transformation of the state’s Air Quality Control Commission into an “independent” body; and a constitutional requirement that any bill passed by the Legislature with an estimated negative economic impact totaling $100 million in gross domestic product over five years be referred to a statewide vote.

In response, environmental groups filed three initiatives of their own. One, creating a broad “right to a healthy environment,” was rejected by the Title Board on single-subject grounds. But two others, which would hold oil and gas companies strictly liable for damages and create a private right of action to enforce environmental regulations, were approved last week.

‘Dark money’-backed agenda

Besides Thiry’s camp, the most active initiative proponents at the Title Board this cycle have been a small group of Republican operatives, including Fields and former state Senate candidate Suzanne Taheri, who represent interests that in many cases are unknown to the public. Advance Colorado, which has spent lavishly on conservative candidates and causes in recent elections, is a so-called “dark money” nonprofit that does not disclose its donors.

As Democrats have cemented their hold on Colorado’s state government, the initiative process has emerged as one of the only remaining avenues for conservative groups to influence state policy, and several ballot measures filed this year aim to protect and expand that power.

Currently, any changes to state law made by a statutory initiative — in contrast to a proposed constitutional amendment — may be amended or even reversed by a simple majority vote of the Legislature. A measure proposed this year by conservative groups would instead require a three-fourths majority of lawmakers to alter any initiated statute. The Title Board initially approved the measure but reversed itself last month after a lengthy re-hearing, siding with objectors who argued it violated the single-subject rule.

The board also denied an initiative filed by Fields and Taheri seeking to eliminate the Title Board altogether, empowering legislative branch staff to make single-subject and title determinations, excluding the representatives of the secretary of state and attorney general and ending the Title Board’s open public meetings on proposed initiatives.

Another measure would drastically reduce the length of Colorado’s legislative session, shrinking the current 120-day session to 60 days in odd-numbered years and just 30 days in even-numbered years, and was approved for a title by the board.

Other measures

In addition to the battle over property taxes, the clash between Governor Jared Polis and local governments over Colorado housing policy may be headed to the November ballot in the form of a constitutional amendment affirming the right of “local control over land use.”

Three different versions of the proposed amendment were approved by the Title Board last week. The proponents, former Republican state Senator Kevin Grantham and former Democratic state Senator Cheri Jahn, were represented before the board by Jason Dunn, a Republican former U.S. attorney during the Trump administration who is now an attorney at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

The measure would severely restrict efforts by Polis and some lawmakers to force cities to allow the construction of more housing units and higher-density neighborhoods, adding a clause in the state Constitution that gives local governments “plenary and exclusive control over land use regulations or decisions within their jurisdictions, such that the state government may not specify more or less restrictive land use requirements than the local government specifies.”

Meanwhile, conservative activist Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute has filed another proposed income tax cut, which would reduce the state’s current income tax rate from 4.4 percent to 4 percent. The cut would be the third incremental reduction passed by voters in consecutive two-year election cycles, as part of an effort Caldara’s group calls a “Path to Zero” for state income taxes.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.