Jon Caldara transportation
The Independence Institute's Jon Caldara. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)
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Just how serious is the Independence Institute about its highway-funding ballot issue?

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That’s essentially the question the Colorado Statesman’s John Tomasic puts to the libertarian-leaning think tank’s longtime director, Jon Caldara, in a story this week. The upshot is in the headline: “For what it’s worth, Caldara says he’s going forward on transportation initiative.”

And then there’s also this item we stumbled across on Independence’s own website — a notice soliciting proposals from consultants to run the campaign for the ballot initiative:

The Fix Our Damn Roads issue committee is presently seeking proposals from interested parties for a campaign manager for a 2017 statewide initiative campaign concerning transportation funding…

Perhaps it’s another measure of Caldara’s resolve to get this particular show ready for the road?

Tomasic raises the issue because Caldara and Independence have been vociferous foes of another proposed transportation plan — a tax hike — that a coalition of lawmakers has been hoping to refer to the ballot through pending legislation. That legislation is now on life support for lack of votes among pivotal Senate Republicans.

So the question arises: Does Independence’s competing proposal — tax-free and potentially more popular — represent an earnest drive to the November ballot in its own right? Or, is it just an attempt to scare lawmakers away from their own proposal — because voters might think of it as a tax-hike turkey next to the Independence plan?

More to the point, with pending legislative efforts to forge a compromise transportation-funding ballot proposal now all but dead, does it pay Caldara to go on?

Tomasic quotes Caldara:

“Yeah, we’re going forward… Do you think it will pass?” he said.

If Caldara really intends to spend a million dollars to land his proposal on state voter ballots then maybe it could pass — and the possibility of Caldara’s initiative or another one passing at the ballot is part of what is fueling whatever hope is left that House Bill 1242 will survive.

It’s a reasonable question because, of course, ballot issues aren’t just about expressing the will of the people. Oh, sure, there is that — but as we all know, there’s also this: Ballot proposals serve as a handy tool in every political schemer’s bag of tricks.

The citizen-initiated petitions must be filed with the state, which gets to OK a ballot issue’s proposed wording before its backers can petition voters for their signatures. Often enough, interest groups will file proposals with the state intending to go no further than that first, relatively painless and low-cost stage. The objective could be scaring backers of a similar, rival proposal into thinking their support base will be siphoned off. Or, it could be a ruse to prompt lawmakers into action with a referred ballot measure of their own — lest a more extreme version dangled by those filing the ballot issue becomes law. The list of possibilities goes on.

If that’s not Independence’s game, and it really means to move forward, perhaps Caldara reasons he has a winner of an idea on its own merit and is worth advancing regardless of what happens at the Capitol. It wouldn’t be the first such success for his outfit, which authored the lopsidedly victorious Proposition 104 on the 2014 statewide ballot, opening teacher-union contract negotiations to the public.

Could this one even be popular enough — bonding rather than raising taxes to address widespread anger over declining and bottlenecked highways — that it wouldn’t even require all that much campaign cash to put it over the top? Maybe.

Which brings us back to the search for a consultant to run the ballot drive. Reached for comment today, Caldara said:

“We’re just looking for the right person who can bring together the coalition needed to win and the experience to prove it. There’s a lot of frustration that our state officials won’t prioritize roads.”

We’ll keep watching; lawmakers undoubtedly will, too.


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