By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado voters will face the longest ballot in the United States this election. That’s because in addition to offering choices for president, U.S. senator and various state and local officials, our ballot is burdened with an overwhelming 18 ballot questions.
And although a good deal of press has been devoted to such high-profile ballot questions as Amendment 46, which would banish affirmative action programs, and Amendment 48, which would effectively ban abortion, other measures that are no less controversial have failed to attract much attention.
The union wars: Payroll deductions, no-bid contracts
News reports about amendments that deal with the relationship between labor and business have focused mostly on Amendment 47, the right-to-work measure, and four pro-labor measures (53, 55, 56 and 57) that were offered as a political parry.
But there’s more. Although their proponents might deny it, two other measures on the Colorado ballot also indirectly target unions. And both the measures have been marked for defeat by union-backed Protect Colorado’s Future.
Amendment 49, the brainchild of Jon Caldara, president of the Golden-based libertarian think tank Independence Institute, would repeal an executive order issued by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter last year that allows state employees to sign up for automatic payroll deductions that funnel donations to special interest groups, including unions.
Amendment 54 is being spearheaded by University of Colorado Regent Tom Lucero, a Republican. It would ban recipients of no-bid government contracts from contributing to political candidates or campaigns for at least two years after landing a contract.
Protect Colorado’s Future, which is supported by labor groups including the Colorado AFL-CIO, the Teamsters and the Colorado Education Association, is running television and radio ads against both 49 and 54. The pro-union campaign is lumping the two in with the right-to-work measure, Amendment 47, and urging voters to oppose all three because they would “silence the voices of firefighters, nurses and policemen throughout Colorado.”
“This is the first time in any part of the country that a state has faced this kind of three-pronged attack. It’s historic, and we’re going to need as much voter support as we can get,” said Protect Colorado’s Future executive director Jess Knox.
Both Caldara and Lucero, however, argue that their initiatives are being unfairly characterized simply because the unions have linked them to 47.
“We’re unfairly being labeled with 47 and 49. We have nothing in common with those two,” said Lucero, who called Knox’s assertion that Amendment 54 would harm firefighters, nurses and policemen “a lie.”
Caldara, during a Capitol press conference on Monday, echoed Lucero and asked, “Why in the world would they lump 49 in there with right-to-work? … (Amendment) 49 does not affect private sector businesses. (Amendment) 49 does not change the way unions work. This is only a restriction to government.”
Knox, however, said the combined effect of Amendments 47, 49 and 54 would undercut union finances and “decimate” the ability of unions and public employees to argue in favor of improved services for the state.
Both Caldara and Lucero rejected that argument and pointed out that their two measures place no new restrictions on donations to unions. Caldara said his measure would only prevent state and local governments from serving as “bag men” for labor groups. Lucero said his measure would ensure that neither companies nor unions would be able to buy their way toward bigger paychecks.
Also on Monday, Caldara issued an offer to Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, and said he’d be willing to remove Amendment 49 from the ballot if Ritter would rescind an executive order issued last November that allows unions to negotiate on behalf of state employees.
“The governor was the one who said we need to holster our weapons, otherwise we’re going to have this mutually assured destruction,” Caldara said. “Let’s remember who drew a weapon first. It was Governor Bill Ritter who drew first.”
Ritter, however, said on Monday that he wasn’t interested in Caldara’s offer, and pointed out that his executive order was made in the spirit of developing long-term partnerships between the state government and its employees.
Meanwhile, Lucero said he’s waiting and hoping for a response from Knox on a debate challenge he issued earlier this month.
“Apparently he wants to hide behind their shady advertising,” Lucero said.
Knox replied that he’s interested in a debate, but only if it centers on all three of the ballot measures his group is opposing: Amendments 47, 49 and 54.
Both Caldara and Lucero also are being heavily outspent by Protect Colorado’s Future. The union-backed campaign has been running a television ad for weeks that features a firefighter emotionally pleading with Colorado voters to oppose all three ballot questions.
So far, Protect Colorado’s Future has raised $3.3 million, and still has another $366,000 cash on hand. Lucero’s campaign, Clean Government Colorado, has raised nearly $1.5 million and has $19,000 cash on hand. And Caldara’s issues committee, Ethical Standards Now, has yet to raise any money.
According to campaign finance records, Lucero’s campaign has been funded almost completely by Colorado at Its Best, a campaign run by conservative politico Dennis Polhill.
Protect Colorado’s Future has been funded by a wide array of unions, including the Denver Firefighters Local 858, the Colorado Professional Firefighters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Laborers International Union and the Service Employees International Union.
Lucero and Caldara both said they’re counting on a solid grassroots effort to combat both measures, and they also both said they’re receiving excellent responses from voters that they’ve reached.
“Colorado voters are actually pretty wise when they get the time to look at the issues,” Caldara said.
At the same time, Caldara said he’s “worried that between the presidential race and the senatorial race, all the oxygen will be sucked out of the room.”
“My concern is the press isn’t going to have enough time to go through these issues, and remember, Election Day starts in early October. We have an Election Month,” he said.
Lucero has much more of an advertising budget than Caldara, and said Clean Government Colorado already has billboards up in all of Colorado’s 64 counties, but he also admitted wryly, “We’re not a very sexy initiative.”
From his point of view, Amendment 54 is also a bipartisan measure that appeals to voters of all different stripes.
“This is more of a populist issue,” Lucero argued, and theorized that there could be “billions” in unrecorded no-bid government contracts handed out each year. He said the state government handed out $400 million in no-bid contracts last year alone, but that most municipalities don’t track such handouts.
Also as part of the bill, the state would be required to create and maintain a database of all government contracts that would be open and searchable by the public.
Community colleges cross their fingers for gaming initiative
If Colorado’s community colleges get their way, the state’s three gambling towns — Blackhawk, Cripple Creek and Central City — will soon be allowed to decide whether they want to increase bet limits from $5 to $100, increase casino operating hours and add roulette and craps to the games already offered to tourists.
The campaign favoring Amendment 50, which would create that possibility, is being led by longtime Colorado GOP operative Katy Atkinson, who also helped pass the emergency state funding measure Referendum C in 2005.
“It is, in many ways, a vote on a vote,” Atkinson explained, stressing that the statewide ballot measure wouldn’t directly increase bet limits, but only grant the municipalities the power to hold their own elections and ask voters whether they’d like to up the ante.
If Amendment 50 is approved and any of the three towns then get voters to agree to either increased hours or bet limits, the new revenue would be broken down in several ways. Of the new income, which could be as much as $300 million, 78 percent would go toward community colleges and 22 percent would go to the local governments of the three towns. That could mean an annual gain of up to $220 million for Colorado’s community college system.
“This lets local people empower local communities, and it funds a part of the higher education system that has been hit harder than any other part of the higher education community,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson pointed out that many of Colorado’s 16 community colleges had their funding slashed during the recession earlier this decade, and the lost funds have not been completely restored.
She also noted that Colorado’s bet limit hasn’t changed once since voters first approved limited gaming in 1990, and is currently the lowest in the nation. Even if the trio of gaming towns approve a bet limit increase, Colorado would still be tied with Deadwood, S.D. for the lowest in the country (32 states other than Colorado allow limited gaming).
A grassroots campaign to oppose the measure is being led by John Anderson, an attorney and former aide to former Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Anderson said that the measure opens a Pandora’s box of social ills that would ultimately result in higher crime rates, increased home foreclosures and dangerous gambling addictions.
“All three of those have skyrocketed,” Anderson said, referring to towns and states that have approved more high-stakes gambling than Colorado. “It’s just too extreme for Colorado… Only harm can come from it.”
Anderson said the measure would be a “complete departure” from limited gaming, and pointed out that the bet limit increase would be 20 times the current limit.
He further predicted that if Amendment 50 passes, it could pave the way for casino expansions into other towns throughout the state, which would spread social ills even faster, he said. Additionally, he said, Native American tribes may find it worthwhile to try and stake a claim somewhere in Colorado and open up casinos of their own.
“If you want to talk about a slippery slope, this will take us right up to the pinnacle,” Anderson said.
And former Democratic legislator Jerry Kopel pointed out in a recent Colorado Statesman column that, according to an academic study on lottery money and school financing recently featured in the New York Times, in other states where gaming money has been tied to education, after a few years with boosted funding, legislators start substituting general revenue funds for gambling revenue, and the schools don’t gain any additional funding.
Because of such opposition, Atkinson says she doesn’t expect Amendment 50 to be a “slam dunk,” even given that Colorado voters usually like measures to increase education funding.
Nevertheless, she’s hopeful. And she has good reason. Anderson, who is running his campaign with former Denver Post reporter Scott Yates, may have a tough time getting his message out. So far, the campaign hasn’t raised a dime.
The campaign favoring Amendment 50, however, just began running TV ads, and has been running radio ads since Aug. 25. Atkinson is sitting on a war chest of $721,000, and has raised more than $6.6 million, almost exclusively from the casino lobby. One casino, Black Hawk’s Ameristar Casino, donated $2 million to the campaign.
Arc leader hopes Coloradans will find room for a tax increase in their hearts
Given that Democratic turnout this year will likely be higher in Colorado than in more recent elections or in any in the near future, Arc of Colorado executive director Marijo Rymer said that the decision to place a tax hike on the ballot was a very deliberate one.
“The polling we did last year told us that the voters who are most likely to be persuaded by this are the same ones who are going to be turning out for this election — young voters and women,” Rymer said. “That’s why we chose to attack it this year.”
Given that empathetic base, Rymer said, she’s got her fingers crossed that Colorado voters will see fit to approve Amendment 51, which asks them to fork over an extra two cents per $10 on their state sales tax in the name of wiping out the waiting list for state aid for residents with developmental disabilities.
The list, she said, has grown to exceed the number of residents who are already receiving aid. Currently, there are 12,400 residents on the waiting list, and only 11,400 residents are receiving aid. The tax hike, Rymer said, would effectively wipe out the waiting list within two years. In its first year, during which the hike would only be halfway implemented, an extra $89 million would be generated, and in the second year, that total would jump to $186 million.
The 2008-09 state budget allocates $184 million for residents with developmental disabilities.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Rymer said, noting that more than 9,000 of those on the waiting list live with caregivers older than 60.
But Rymer also knows that passing a tax increase in Colorado isn’t exactly easy, which is why she’s enlisted a broad base of support, including former first lady Frances Owens, a Republican. Owens is slated to appear at a rally on behalf of the measure on Oct. 11. Other GOP supporters that have crossed party lines include state Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs; Ken Summers, R-Lakewood; Republican attorney Richard Westfall; and Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Blake.
“We don’t see it as a partisan effort at all. Clearly, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy affect all types of people,” Rymer said.
Rymer also admitted that the grassroots effort to get the measure passed will have to be “intensive,” given that they’ve raised only $504,000 to date and have just $177,000 cash on hand. Most of their funds will be spent on yard signs and literature, but Rymer also said the campaign hopes to purchase radio ads before long.
The upside, Rymer said, is that the measure isn’t facing any organized opposition, and the only registered opponent in the Colorado Blue Book is the notorious anti-tax crusader and TABOR author state Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-Colorado Springs.
When most voters realize what the measure will do, she added, by and large they support it.
“A very small increase in the state sales tax is a small price to pay to help people who, through no fault of their own, can’t help themselves,” Rymer said. “We think (our chances are) 50-50. If the message is delivered properly, people are very receptive.”
The tax will not apply to groceries, medical services, prescription drugs, gasoline or household utilities, which, Rymer hopes, will make it more acceptable to voters.
She said the campaign is focusing on the Front Range, including Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Boulder and Broomfield counties, where it’s more likely to find a sympathetic ear. But, she said, the Arc of El Paso County is also putting together a strong campaign, and Rymer said she’s hoping they could win even in the traditionally anti-tax Pikes Peak region.
Transportation funding gaining steam
Last but certainly not least is a measure to increase transportation funding.
Amendment 52 is a Republican push to redistribute the state severance tax income and bolster transportation funding, which — Republicans say — is being siphoned off into other projects by Statehouse Democrats.
Currently, half of the state’s severance tax income goes to the Department of Local Affairs and the other half to the Department of Natural Resources. Under Amendment 58, a portion of the Department of Natural Resources funds would go toward transportation maintenance.
According to Legislative Council, the measure would increase transportation funding by roughly $1 billion over the next decade, with an extra $89 million coming in next year alone.
The measure is the brainchild of state Reps. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma; Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch; and state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita; and is competing for the attention of the public with another severance
tax measure, Amendment 58, which
is backed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
The Republicans believe theirs is favored, however, because it would help fund transportation without increasing taxes or fees, while Ritter’s measure constitutes a $300 million tax hike on the oil and gas industry.
“I feel much better about our chances to pass 52 than the governor should feel about his chances to pass 58,” bragged McNulty, who said he’s been spending a majority of his free time trying to build up a statewide coalition to get their measure approved.
Gardner joked, “It’s like that moving company, three guys and a truck. That’s us, three guys and a Nissan.”
Although the trio has raised only $300,000 and has only $30,000 cash on hand, they have a long list of supporters that includes business groups and chambers of commerce from across every corner of Colorado.
“Because there was no movement on transportation funding in the last session, we felt that this was at least a starting point,” said Cathy Shull, the executive director of Progressive 15, a business coalition in northeastern Colorado.
There is some dissension in the business community over the measure, however. The board of directors of Club 20, an influential business group on Colorado’s Western Slope, voted earlier this month to oppose the measure, said Reeves Brown, the organization’s executive director.
Brown said Club 20 was turned off by what they saw as favoritism for Colorado’s Front Range, especially with regard to funding the I-70 corridor, which will receive the lion’s share of the transportation dollars with the aim of reducing congestion. The board also couldn’t get around the fact that the measure would implant yet another funding formula into the state constitution, which is contrary to their platform.
Also just this week, a formal campaign to oppose Amendment 52 was founded, called Responsible Colorado. The measure is headed by Heidi Van Huysen, a Department of Natural Resources attorney who has taken a leave of absence to run the campaign.
“There are transportation needs, but a better solution does not involve taking away from the state’s water needs to feed transportation needs. We need a more responsible solution,” said Van Huysen.
Opposing the measure, she said, are the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado Municipal League and the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Still, Gardner remains supremely confident.
“We know that we’re winning at this point, from the information that we have,” he said, and added that it’s an indication of their strength that “Ritter is dispatching his own political operatives to defeat Amendment 52.”
The Better Roads Now campaign also began airing a TV ad earlier this month, and the GOP trio hopes to have more in the near future.
The three also acknowledged that though the measure would be a “down payment” for transportation funding, it falls far short of the $1.5 billion annual funding increase recommended by the state Blue Ribbon Transportation Panel last year.