Issue losses blamed on long ballot

Voters just say 'no' (mostly)

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Faced with the longest ballot Colorado had seen since 1912, many voters threw up their hands and voted “no” on everything. At least, that’s the most common explanation offered by proponents of the ballot questions that failed to pass on Nov. 4.

Voters defeated 10 of the 14 measures.

Jessica Peck Corry, an analyst for the Independence Institute and a backer of Amendment 46, said polling two weeks before Election Day showed the so-called “Colorado Civil Rights Initiative” winning with 62 percent in favor and 19 percent against.

But on Election Day, the amendment, which would have eliminated affirmative action programs in public employment, education and contracting, lost by a narrow margin.

“Voters just said ‘no’ to one and all of the initiatives,” said Corry.

That’s also what brought down Amendment 59, according to Colorado Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a supporter of the measure. The complex amendment was designed to untangle conflicting portions of the Colorado Constitution to create a permanent pot of money for K-12 education funding.

“The long and complex ballot was really asking a lot of voters,” she said.

“A lot of people look at the ballot and vote ‘no’ if they don’t understand what something means.”

Referendum O, which would have made it easier to place simple statutes on the ballot, while discouraging constitutional amendments, also was narrowly defeated.

Proponents had hoped future ballots would be shorter if the referendum passed. Its supporters believe it lost primarily because this year’s ballot was so long.

“The irony was not lost,” said Brenda Morrison, spokeswoman for the referendum.

Two of the four measures that did pass simply did away with outdated laws and were not controversial — but even both of those slam-dunk measures drew “no” votes of more than 30 percent. And a largely non-controversial referendum to lower the minimum age of state legislators from 25 to 21 went down.

Poor economy also cited

The defeat of Amendment 59 was one of the two biggest disappointments for Colorado Democrats on a day when they delivered the state for Barack Obama, the Senate for Mark Udall and the 4th Congressional District for Betsy Markey.

The other major blow was the defeat of Amendment 58, which would have eliminated a tax credit for the oil and gas industry, creating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in funding for college scholarships.

The day after the election, Gov. Bill Ritter, a strong supporter of the measure, offered an alternative theory — beyond ballot fatigue — to explain why both Amendment 59 and Amendment 58 lost by fairly substantial margins.

“Nobody could have said, ‘In the third week of September, we’re going to have one of the worst economic downturns on Wall Street,’” Ritter said at a press gathering in the governor’s office.

Amendments 58 and 59 would have altered the state’s tax structure. Ritter said in these tough economic times, however, voters weren’t interested in anything that could be construed — fairly or unfairly — as a tax hike.

As long as it didn’t involve changing the tax structure, voters apparently were interested in more revenue for higher education. That was evidenced by the passage of Amendment 50, one of just two contested ballot questions that did pass. And it passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Amendment 50 allows Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, the three Colorado towns that permit gambling, to be open 24 hours and add roulette or craps. It also allows them to vote to increase maximum bets from $5 up to a possible $100. Most of the increased revenue would go to fund scholarships for community colleges.

“I think Colorado voters know a win-win situation when they see one, and, frankly, we had the resources to explain it to them,” said Katy Atkinson, a Republican political consultant who backed Amendment 50.

The other contested ballot question that passed — somewhat surprisingly — was Amendment 54, which bans the practice of “pay to play” in government contracts by prohibiting the holder of contracts totaling $100,000 or more — including certain collective bargaining agreements — from contributing to a political party or candidate within two years of the contract being awarded.

The passage of Amendment 54 was surprising because labor groups lumped it in with Amendments 47 and 49 and spent some $27 million in advertising against the three measures.

Amendment 47 lost by 12 points, and Amendment 49 lost by 20 points, but the “Colorado Clean Government Initiative” squeaked to victory, even though the Amendment 54 campaign spent just $1.8 million to promote it.

“It is truly extraordinary,” said Tom Lucero, a University of Colorado regent who backed Amendment 54. “We knew we had a winning message.”

Lucero explained that Coloradans are naturally attracted to measures increasing the transparency of government, citing the passage of a bill to rein in lobbyists, Amendment 41, in 2006. Lucero also said Amendment 54 had an extraordinary grassroots campaign that got its message out, despite the lack of money. It was the second most effective grassroots effort in the state, he said, behind only Barack Obama’s.

A stalemate for business and labor

The passage of Amendment 54 signaled a defeat for labor interests, who say the measure will unfairly exclude union members and their family members from donating to political candidates.

Litigation is expected to test whether the amendment illegally curtails free speech rights or violates the constitutional principle of equal protection under the law.

If labor suffered a setback in the passage of Amendment 54, however, it won a major coup in defeating Amendment 47. The measure would’ve prohibited unions and employers from negotiating contracts under which employees were required to pay union dues.

Amendment 47 was backed by a group of business interests seeking to lessen the influence of unions in Colorado, including Jonathan Coors, a 28-year-old member of the Coors brewing family, American Furniture Warehouse CEO Jake Jabs and Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier.

“It’s always better to fight for what you think is right and not be successful, than to never fight at all,” said Kelley Harp, spokesman for the “right to work” campaign. “Amendment 47 would have promoted individual liberty and empowered the individual worker. Fighting for these principles is always worth it, and it is a fight that will continue.”

But will the fight between business and labor continue on future ballots? The conflict between those interests formed the backdrop to this year’s election, with tens-of-millions of dollars invested in what turned out to be largely a wash.

Perhaps as important as the defeat of any amendment on Nov. 4 was the early October deal between labor and a large coalition of business interests resulting in the removal of four “poison pill,” pro-labor ballot initiatives from the ballot. Many business leaders feared that, if passed, the four measures would cripple Colorado’s economy. In exchange for their removal, a coalition that included many of the state’s largest businesses broke from Amendment 47 backers and pledged $3 million to fight Amendments 47, 49 and 54.

Was the unprecedented deal a signal of a détente? Business interests say that may depend on the actions of the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor’s office, and whether state government makes concessions tipping the scales in favor of labor interests.

However, Mike Cerbo, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, says he never saw this year’s ballot standoff as a true battle between the state’s business and labor interests.

“A fringe group out there appears to be trying to speak for business,” Cerbo said, of the backers of Amendment 47, “but I’ve always had a good relationship with the business community. I don’t see this as a business and labor conflict.”