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Petition circulators out in force as deadline for Colorado ballot spot nears

Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - July 23, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

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Clipboard-toting petition circulators pose the question on downtown sidewalks, in grocery store parking lots, and at farmers markets, community festivals, parades and other public events:

“Are you a registered voter in Colorado?”

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A “yes” results in a pitch asking for your John Hancock on some kind of proposal a political group wants to get on the Nov. 6 election ballot.

Are you willing to sign your name so voters can decide whether to impose stricter oil and gas setbacks?

What about banning smartphone sales to kids under 13 or increasing state sales tax to fund transportation projects?

Do you support prohibiting immigrant sanctuary policies that violate federal law or repealing the prohibition on sales and possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines?

These and a host of other issues covering private property rights, genetically modified food labeling, medical bill transparency, payday loan finance charges and state income tax are hopefuls for this year’s statewide ballot.

Since most initiatives face an Aug. 6 deadline, volunteer and paid signature gatherers are out in full force.

It’s the democratic process in action, says professor Josh Dunn, chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Whether it’s a good one is up for debate.

The system enabling Americans to initiate citizen-driven laws emerged during the progressive reform movement of the early 20th century and was enacted in Colorado in 1910.

“The emphasis is on direct democracy, with the idea that giving voters more direct control would be better for democracy,” said Dunn, who’s also director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at UCCS.

More than 100 years later, Dunn’s not sure it’s working. “In the end, I’m rather skeptical of this,” he said. “I believe in representative government as a better way of deciding these questions.”

The petition cycle for statewide initiatives to change Colorado statute or the Constitution happens every even year, with tax or finance measures permitted in the odd years.

Success in the 21st century largely depends on how much money and time organizers have, Dunn said, as it takes a copious amount of both.

“You’ve got to get a lot of signatures — 2 percent of voters in all 35 state Senate districts — so you’ve got to have a lot of resources,” he said, of a 2016 constitutional amendment that’s being applied for the first time to make it harder for the state’s Constitution to be altered.

Interest groups seeking either a constitutional amendment or a change in state law need 98,492 valid signatures, with a Secretary of State’s Office recommendation of turning in around 117,000. Changes to the Constitution carry the new burden of requiring 2 percent of signatures from each of the state’s 35 Senate districts.

Constitutional amendment proposals also must pass with 55 percent of the vote instead of a simple majority.

Dunn views the tighter regulations as a positive step. Critics say Colorado has one of the nation’s longest and most convoluted Constitutions.

“The easier it is to amend the Constitution, the more it looks like ordinary legislation that shouldn’t be in the Constitution,” he said.

The “unbelievable amount” of amendments to the Colorado Constitution has in fact presented problems, Dunn said, pointing to Amendment 23 as an example. Colorado voters in 2000 agreed to amend the Constitution to earmark dedicated money for public education, to reverse budget cuts that happened in the 1990s.

But when the 2008 recession hit, the state could no longer afford to meet the funding requirements, so lawmakers reinterpreted the provision — a move that was challenged in the courts — to essentially renege on the deal.

The debt to schools became known as the negative factor, now called the budget stabilization factor, and with a $672.4 million shortfall in funding for this budget cycle, remains a sore spot for public education officials.

Government spending restrictions of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, also has presented issues, Dunn said.

“Colorado voters like limiting spending and taxes, but they also like increasing spending for education, so you end up with these two parts of the Constitution that work against each other,” Dunn said. “The Legislature has to work around it with controversial means to avoid disaster.”

Dunn believes the legalization of recreational marijuana also should not have been a voter-approved constitutional amendment, but, rather, debated and decided in the Legislature.

“Whether or not you agree with legalizing it, this is a policy matter, and everything regarding marijuana would be better with ordinary statutory legislation,” he said.

“We have representative government for a reason — they can balance competing concerns or values. Ordinary voters aren’t thinking about how we reconcile these issues.”

The petition process removes much of the discussion and debate that legislators undertake with proposed bills and often confuses voters, Dunn believes.

Thus, citizen-driven measures that make it to the ballot aren’t necessarily there because the majority of people think they’re a good concept, he said.

“The whole idea that people are going to get control is misleading, given the amount of money it takes to succeed,” he said. “It becomes difficult to say if these are popular movements rising up or special-interest groups using Colorado as a testing ground.”

It’s not often that initiatives progress to the ballot without the use of paid petition circulators, said Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, which validates petition signatures.

“It’s very hard to be a volunteer effort and get on the ballot,” she said.

Organizers of the first initiative to produce enough valid signatures for a spot on the November ballot used 1,500 volunteers and an unknown number of paid petitioners.

Backers of Initiative 93, which would help fund public education by increasing state income taxes for wealthier residents, started circulating petitions in February using volunteers and in June brought paid petitioners on board, said Martha Olson, one of two designated representatives for the measure presented by Great Schools, Thriving Communities.

Parents, teachers, church members, school board representatives and other supporters went to soccer games, rec centers, community picnics and elsewhere to get signatures, Olson said. Pueblo County was the first to get the sufficient number of signatures, she said, while El Paso County was one of the tougher sells.

“It was a big undertaking, it’s a pretty daunting bar to have 2 percent of registered voters in every Senate district in the state plus an extra 20,000,” she said, “but our success is testimony to the importance of developing a secure, stable, adequate stream of funding for schools across our state.”

Olson said the coalition would have reached the required amount without paying a professional firm as well as hiring college students and other supporters to work as petitioners.

“The volunteers would have gotten us over the line; it was the paid petitioners who gave us a cushion to know we’d be successful,” she said.

Great Education has raised $75,000 in contributions as of the July 2 campaign finance reporting period and has spent $58,400 in monetary expenses and another $58,000 worth of in-kind services.

Proponents say they turned in more than 170,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on July 11, nearly double what was needed.

“What makes Colorado different from other states is we the people have to make the decision to invest in public education; we can’t rely on our elected reps because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights,” Olson said. “This is an indication the time is right for something to really invest in public education in Colorado.”

To voters weighing whether to sign a petition, Dunn said it should be an issue they support and understand.

“Can voters intelligently evaluate all of them? I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t mean voters are stupid. It’s just that people have a lot going on in their lives. But it is the process we have to work with.”

To examine the measures, go to the Initiative Filings, Agendas & Results link on the Secretary of State web page and the first set of measures marked “Approved for Circulation.” When you click on each measure, there will be a link marked “hearing result.” Click on that link and the ballot titles will say whether it is a proposed change to the Colorado Constitution or state statute.

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette