Updated 4:15 p.m.
Two ballot initiatives backed by conservative groups — one lowers the state’s income tax rate, another requires voter approval for any large fee increase — kick off their signature-gathering campaigns Monday. It comes on the heels of an executive order Democratic Gov. Jared Polis publicly released on Saturday.
The executive action suspends several laws to give petition gatherers more flexibility in an age of social distancing to get signatures via e-mail or by mail rather than solely in person.
The new rules are yet to be finalized and already face a court challenge.
“I think we're waiting to see what it ends up looking like and how burdensome the process is,” said Michael Fields, the executive director of Colorado Rising Action, which backs the initiatives.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the fundamentals of political campaigning and created a budget crisis where state lawmakers now face a more than $3 billion budget shortfall. Initiative 295 would require voters to approve any fee increase that generates $100 million over a five year period.
“We know now with the budget shortfall, legislators are going to be looking everywhere they can to try to raise the revenue, especially without asking voter approval,” Fields said. “And so we think this is good timing to get it on the ballot.”
Initiative 306 would reduce the state income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.55 percent. The idea came partly in response to a different tax proposal from the left. The Fair Tax Colorado proposal would increase taxes for the top 5 percent of earners and lower them for everyone else, to generate $2 billion, half of which would go to fund K-12 public schools.
As Fields sees it, both sides feel that COVID-19 strengthens their case.
“The other side is saying, ‘Hey we have budget cuts. We need to fill this gap.’ But then our side, people are like, you don't want to raise taxes right now when there's a recession and the governor is saying it’s not a good idea. We need to get the economy back.”
A number of other groups also want to gather signatures for the ballot by the Aug. 3 deadline. Among the hopefuls is a measure to create a paid family and medical leave program, and a proposal to increase taxes on vaping and nicotine products.
Healthier Colorado, which backs the nicotine and vaping products tax, proposes to use the money for pre-school and to expand tobacco prevention education. Executive director Jake Williams said the new rules on signature gathering should make it easier for the initiative to get on the November ballot.
"Gov. Polis has done the right thing by giving measures already approved through the Title Board the opportunity to both protect public health and make the ballot in the midst of this pandemic,” Williams said. “We are one step closer to reducing the use of cigarettes and nicotine vaping products in Colorado, especially among kids…”
Some said the governor does not have the authority to authorize such a change even in the midst of a public health emergency. And on Monday, Colorado Concern, a group of CEOs from across the state filed a lawsuit.
“The governor has led our state admirably through these dark and difficult days, and so many of us have stood with him throughout,” said Dan Ritchie, a Colorado Concern member, and the former University of Denver chancellor. “But Gov. Polis’ Friday evening executive order, which would remove vital safeguards that go to the very heart of the integrity in the initiative process, reaches beyond the power given to the governor by the people, and has to be challenged.”
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce also criticized the Polis’ executive order.
“Beyond violating our constitution, we are also concerned that the proposed process excludes many Coloradans from participation, either because they don’t have access or can’t afford internet service or technology, like computers, printers and smartphones,” said a statement from Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “A smaller group of Coloradans with access to these resources would have an unfair advantage to put their issues on the ballot, leaving our state’s rural, elderly and lower-income populations out of our election process. We could never support a process that creates such inequities for the citizens of our state.”
The Colorado Secretary of State still needs to create the new ballot petition rules but the executive order does require signature signers to include a first and last name, address and date with their signature. It would not change the timeline for initiatives that already submitted signatures to the Secretary of State for a sufficiency review. That means a group seeking to ban abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy, will not get to operate under the new rules, because they are currently in that cure period.
Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the Colorado Common Cause advocacy group, said short term adjustments could help the ballot process maintain some normalcy. The new order allows the Secretary of State to adjust deadlines and other details, she noted, but voters will still hold the ultimate say.
“Voters are still going to vote on (these measures), assuming the signatures are collected,” she said.
Any longer-term changes would have to be carefully considered, however. She envisioned a scenario where push notifications and mobile phones make it far easier for certain causes to get on the ballot.
“That actually might not be representative of what voters want,” she said. “And so if you make something that ‘in your face,’ where everybody's gonna fill it out, well, you probably have to make other changes.”
Some campaigns, including the paid leave and fair tax ballot measures, already have people gathering physical signatures in the field. Their virtual campaigns will have to wait for the state's new rules.
CPR reporter Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.