Voters likely to face 19 measures

Petition checkers face long work days

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

What’s it like to work for the elections division of Colorado’s Department of State in August? Let’s just say the preparations for the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center and Invesco look leisurely by comparison.

On Monday, the secretary of state’s downtown Denver office received roughly 874,000 petition signatures for no less than six separate ballot measures.

The monumental task of certifying each measure by Sept. 3 falls to the folks working in the secretary of state’s office.

A grand total of 120 temporary workers have been hired for hours and hours of painstaking name-checking. Half are working the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. day shift; the other half are working the 3:30 to 11 p.m. swing shift.

“This is a lot for them to deal with,” said Rich Coolidge, spokesman for Secretary of State Mike Coffman. Coolidge said there were initial concerns there wouldn’t be enough space in the office to accommodate the hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with petitions that flowed in on Monday, Aug. 4, the final submission deadline.

Those boxes joined dozens of boxes of yet-uncertified petitions received during the preceding week from circulators who brought in their petitions early.

When asked if the office was worried about completing all certifications by the September deadline, Coolidge simply grinned and said, “Not yet.”

He insisted that the secretary of state’s office is well-equipped to handle the workload, and that they’ve been getting ready for the avalanche of paper since March.

Only one possibility keeps Coolidge up nights. He’s worried that the margin of valid signatures for one or more of the initiatives will be so narrow that his workers will have to go over each petition line by line.

That, he said with a shudder, would complicate matters greatly and could even drive them past their deadline.

That’s not usually what happens, however. If everything goes smoothly, the secretary of state’s workers will randomly sample 5 percent of the signatures for each ballot measure. Each employee receives a series of random page numbers and line numbers for each petition. They then go physically through the petitions, find the names on those lines and cross-reference them against the voter-registration rolls.

If enough of the 5 percent sample comes up valid, the measure is certified for the ballot.

Of the signatures turned in for any measure, at least 83,652 — or 110 percent of the 76,047 required signatures — have to be projected as valid. If the random sample is less than that but more than 90 percent of the threshold, the office is required by law to check every single signature turned in by the petitioners.

But, Coolidge noted, the smallest number of signatures turned in by any group was 114,000, so he’s pretty sure all the measures will fall well within the safety zone and be certified without much trouble.

The process is also proving costly — though the Legislature had appropriated $200,000 for the verification process, Coolidge said additional funds will almost certainly be needed, and if a line-by-line analysis is required, that would cost approximately $80,000 per initiative.

Once the secretary of state’s office is finished, the next big job falls to the voters. If measures represented by all the submitted petitions are verified, voters will face a record 19 ballot issues in November.

Unions file signatures for three measures

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, along with the union-backed Protect Colorado’s Future, filed signatures for a trio of ballot initiatives on Monday.

The UFCW is backing one measure, Initiative 93, that would require employers to provide a safe workplace for employees and another, Initiative 92, that would require any company with more than 20 employees to provide health-care benefits. Protect Colorado’s Future, which is supported by a number of different labor groups, filed petitions for a ballot measure, Initiative 76, that would require employers to demonstrate “just cause” before firing any employee. The group also filed petitions last week for a ballot measure to ramp up penalties on corporate executives who commit fraud, bringing the number of potential union-backed ballot measures
to four.

Manolo Gonzalez-Estay, spokesman for the UFCW campaign, said Monday that the ballot measures are necessary to protect middle-class families, especially when economic times are hard.

“Once Colorado voters realize this makes sense, it’ll make a difference,” Gonzalez-Estay said. “This is not aimed at small businesses. This is mainly aimed at large businesses that have the capability to do this. Small businesses should not be negatively impacted by any of this.”

Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado’s Future, even argued that his group’s measures would wind up strengthening the state’s economy by protecting employers from being sued by former employees.

“At a time when there’s a lot of risk out there for both workers and entrepreneurs … this will really give employers safeguards,” Knox said.

He emphasized that the “just cause” measure still allows workers to be terminated.

“(Employers) just have to have a reason,” Knox said.

But Jan Rigg, spokeswoman for Defend Our Economy, the campaign against all four of the measures, said the union-backed quartet of measures would devastate Colorado’s economy. Rigg blasted Gonzalez-Estay and the health-care measure in particular, and called the claim of backers that small business wouldn’t be adversely affected a “smokescreen.”

“A small business is a company with 500 or less employees,” Rigg said, contrary to Gonzalez-Estay’s assertion that companies with 20 or fewer employees are “small.”

Rigg added that with the rising cost of health insurance, many businesses would simply knuckle under if they’re forced to provide benefits to all employees. She predicted the measures eventually would hurt workers and warned the passage of any of the four would send a negative message to business owners thinking of moving to Colorado, further depressing the state’s business climate.

Gonzalez-Estay countered that there is no research to back up Rigg’s claims, whereas he’s seen studies showing that “these kind of things actually save money.”

The UFCW issue committee, Coloradans for Middle Class Relief, has raised $1.6 million so far this election cycle, and has $41,475 cash on hand. Protect Colorado’s Future has raised $2.5 million and has $480,521 cash on hand. Defend Our Economy, however, has raised only $32,800 and has $11,641 cash on hand.

A related ballot measure, Amendment 47, would make Colorado a “right to work” state by allowing employees in unionized shops to opt out of paying dues to labor organizations for representation.

Gov. Bill Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper — working under the premise that much of the union effort is in retaliation for the “right to work” measure — have asked Coloradans to vote against all five ballot measures in order to safeguard the state’s economy.

Gonzalez-Estay calls that advice “unfortunate.”

The “right to work” campaign, dubbed A Better Colorado, has raised $556,198 and has $120,534 cash on hand.

The UFCW filed 155,000 signatures on behalf of the safe workplace measure and 174,000 in support of the health care measure. Protect Colorado’s Future filed 130,000 signatures for their “just cause” ballot measure.

Ritter wants end to oil and gas tax credit

This fall’s most expensive ballot measure probably will prove to be Initiative 113, a controversial measure that would remove a property tax credit for the oil and gas industry that has been in place since the late 1970s.

Ritter has espoused the measure as a way to give some financial relief to parents of college-age students amid constantly rising tuition prices. If the credit is repealed, the state would receive a projected $300 million more a year in revenue — money that energy companies otherwise would have been allowed to keep, 60 percent of which would fund scholarships for Colorado students wishing to attend in-state universities

“We’ve said, every time we talk, that it is about an industry (oil and gas) that has a great deal to do with our economic vibrancy. However, it is also about looking at the revenue that they pay in tax revenue and saying that, quite frankly, ‘Enough is enough,’” Ritter said, invoking the campaign’s chosen slogan.

He called the credit, known as an ad valorem tax credit, “bad tax policy,” and said though it might have been necessary to prop up Colorado’s oil and gas industry 30 years ago, that time has passed.

Steve Jordan, president of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, noted that the increase would double the current amount of financial aid available to in-state students, and said the measure would go a long way toward correcting the “Colorado Paradox” — that, although Colorado ranks among the most educated of all states, it ranks near the bottom in percentage of residents born in the state who earn at least a bachelor’s degree.

But the fight will be a costly one, said Ritter, noting that the oil and gas industry, which is reaping record profits this year, has lots of money and knows how to use it.

“We know we have an aggressive campaign ahead of us. We know we’re up against an industry who, because they have a tax credit … is going to have a lot of money to spend on this campaign,” Ritter said.

Indeed, Coloradans for a Stable Economy, the issue committee dedicated to defeating Initiative 113, already has raised far more than any other ballot campaign this year, and probably is just getting started. The group has received $6.6 million in contributions, and has $434,490 cash on hand.

“Any industry that’s under attack is going to spend some money to defeat the measure,” acknowledged Dan Hopkins, spokesman for Coloradans for a Stable Economy.

Hopkins said the campaign will paint the measure as a straight-up tax increase of $300 million annually, and said ads will focus on the fact that energy companies will pass the tax on to consumers through higher energy prices.

“The shareholders are not going to allow those companies to just absorb a tax increase. The shareholders are going to insist that the tax increase be passed along to consumers,” Hopkins said.

Ritter said the idea that Colorado’s taxes may have an influence on energy prices is ridiculous.

“The amount of oil that flows out of the Colorado market and is put into the global market has, at best, a really miniscule impact on the amount of oil that’s available for consumption,” he said.

The governor also said he’s confident Coloradans will agree that the cost of higher education truly needs
to be offset, and energy companies can afford to pay their share of property taxes to help make that happen.

But Ritter will have an uphill battle on the financial front. A Smarter Colorado, the campaign favoring Initiative 13, has raised only $885,950 so far, and has $75,174 cash on hand.

A Smarter Colorado filed 137,000 signatures Monday on behalf of Initiative 113.

“Civil Rights Initiative” counterpart announces successful petition drive

Opponents of Amendment 46, otherwise known as the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, turned in petitions in support of Initiative 82 on Monday. The measure is designed to counteract the fundamental aim of Amendment 46, which would ban affirmative action programs throughout the state.

The group supporting Initiative 82, Coloradans for Equal Opportunity, submitted only 114,000 signatures on Monday, leaving only a slight buffer against a line-by-line count at 83,652 signatures. (Most campaigns aim much higher, in order to ensure ballot
placement.)

The organization’s president, Melissa Hart, acknowledged that Initiative 82 isn’t necessarily a surefire defense against Amendment 46, considering that if both measures are approved by voters, the courts would have to decide how to resolve the conflict.

Though both ballot measures sound quite similar in tone and language (both include bans on “preferential treatment” based on race or sex, for example), if passed they would have completely different consequences.

Amendment 46 probably would end various state-funded programs for minorities and women. Initiative 82, on the other hand, would protect the same programs by defining “preferential treatment” as quota systems, which already have been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After the filing, CCRI spokeswoman Jessica Peck Corry charged that opponents of the affirmative action ban offered their amendment only as a disingenuous political ploy.

“This initiative was designed to confuse voters. They conceded that the only way to win these things is to keep it off the ballot,” Corry said.

But Hart insisted that Amendment 46 demonstrated “a felt need in our state to clarify our commitment to nondiscrimination.”

She said Initiative 82 represents a “rational alternative” to the “radical proposal” contained in Amendment 46.

Replaying a pattern that has lasted several months, each side accused the other of being deceptive and disingenuous. Opponents of Amendment 46 have argued for months that CRI backers shouldn’t have marketed their measure as supporting civil rights, since it repeals aid for minorities. Amendment 46 backers, meanwhile, have insisted that fairness for all is the essence of civil rights. While returning fire, Corry and company have charged that Initiative 82’s supporters have deliberately tried to mislead the public by imitating their ballot language.

So far, Coloradans for Equal Opportunity has raised $191,845 and has $11,912 cash on hand. Colorado Civil Rights Initiative backers have raised $199,519 and have just $1,615 cash on hand.

Romanoff’s budget fix, SAFE, garners 164,000 supporters

Speaker of the Colorado House, Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, couldn’t quite dig up the support he needed in the Legislature for what probably will be his swan song — a bipartisan budget fix he hopes will help untie some of the fiscal knots created by TABOR and the school funding measure Amendment 23, restoring budgetary flexibility to the Capitol.

But he didn’t let that stop him. Romanoff took to the streets, personally collecting more than 2,000 signatures in a push to petition SAFE onto the November ballot. The potential fiscal fix was dubbed SAFE, or “Savings Account For Education,” before it left the Legislature.

That’s how the speaker, a wily politician if ever there was one, was able to circumvent the single subject rule: he tied the budget fix to the creation of an education fund designed as a fail-safe for the state’s schools in times of economic hardship.

That also appears to be the selling point for the measure, if not necessarily the true guts of it.

“The people we talked to out there are excited to have the chance to vote for this initiative come November. They think Colorado can do better, and we will do better, by protecting our schools when times are tough,” declared Travis Gasper, ballot access director for the SAFE campaign, on Monday afternoon as he helped unload boxes of petitions at the secretary of state’s office.

There was no mention by Gasper of reconciling TABOR’s restrictions with Amendment 23’s spending demands, only an emphasis on how the measure will help schools.

But Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver, alluded to the problem and the perceived solution, saying, “We need to do this in this state. We need to have a rational budget process, and, currently, we don’t.”

Gordon observed that fiscal fixes have been elusive in the past, particularly because of the single-subject rule, adding that Romanoff “deserves a lot of credit for finding a way to get a comprehensive solution by the single subject rule.”

Although the measure has yet to attract formal opposition, backers acknowledge that many Republicans will oppose the measure as an attack on TABOR. That was one of the difficulties Romanoff had when trying to pass it through the Legislature.

The SAFE camp has so far raised $444,905 and currently has $112,057 cash on hand.