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Politics

Your Guide to Colorado’s 2021 Ballot Measures

All Coloradans will be able to vote on three initiatives during the upcoming election. Here’s everything you need to know about each one.

In addition to voting on a record 13 local initiatives, Denverites will also be asked to appraise three statewide measures on this year’s ballot. By law, initiatives put up to a vote in odd-year elections are limited to topics relating to TABOR, Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which requires voter approval for any proposed increase to state taxes. The language for all of them can also be confusing, so we’ve put together a guide to help you better understand what you’re voting for or against on each one.

Remember: Once you’ve filled out your ballot, make sure to take it to one of the secure, 24-hour drop boxes around town no later than 7 p.m. on November 2.

Amendment 78 (Constitutional)

What you’ll see: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution and a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning money that the state receives, and, in connection therewith, requiring all money received by the state, including money provided to the state for a particular purpose, known as custodial money, to be subject to appropriation by the general assembly after a public hearing; repealing the authority to disburse money from the state treasury by any other means; requiring all custodial money to be deposited into the newly created custodial funds transparency fund and the earnings on those deposits to be transferred to the general fund; and allowing the state to retain and spend all custodial money and earnings and revenue on that custodial money as a voter‑approved revenue change?”

What it means: Each year, the Colorado General Assembly drafts a budget outlining how the state will spend its tax revenue. But money originating from outside of the state—known as “custodial funds,” and including federal grants and private donations—is currently not beholden to legislative approval. For example, when the state received nearly $1.7 billion from the federal government last year as part of the CARES Act, Governor Jared Polis distributed the pandemic relief with unilateral authority. The custodial funds designation would also apply to the $400 million Colorado is expected to receive in the settlement with the drugmaker Purdue Pharma.

Sponsored by the conservative dark-money group Colorado Rising Action, Amendment 78 would revise the Colorado constitution to give the legislature the power to determine how custodial funds are used. Michael Fields, the organization’s leader, argues that the change would provide a much-needed boost to government oversight and accountability. By subjecting state spending to the legislative process, the public would have opportunities to vet various proposals.

Opponents, including Scott Wasserman of the liberal-leaning Bell Policy Center, insist the measure is unnecessary and risks delaying the mobilization of potentially life-saving funds, like those allocated to address time-sensitive emergencies, such as fighting wildfires or stabilizing a public health crisis. Other critics, including Democratic State Senator Chris Hansen, cite concerns about the added workload for lawmakers, the cost associated with bringing on more staff, and the potential for political theater as the legislature debates spending on divisive topics. Some have also cautioned that the additional bureaucracy could make Colorado less competitive for federal grant awards.

A lawsuit—filed by Wasserman and Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue, and currently awaiting a hearing in district court—also suggests the amendment violated the rule that statewide ballots in odd-year elections only contain initiatives relating to taxes or fiscal matters arising under TABOR. Legal challenges aside, the measure would require approval from 55 percent of voters to pass, as it’s considered a constitutional amendment.

Proposition 119 (Statutory)

What you’ll see: “Shall state taxes be increased $137,600,000 annually on retail marijuana sales by a change to the Colorado revised statutes concerning the creation of a program to provide out-of-school learning opportunities for Colorado children aged 5 to 17, and, in connection therewith, creating an independent state agency to administer the program for out-of-school learning opportunities chosen by parents; funding the program by increasing the retail mairjuana sales tax by 5% by 2024 and reallocating a portion of the public school lands income; authorizing transfers and revenue for programs funding as a voter-approved revenue change; specifying that learning opportunities include tutoring and extra instruction in subjects including reading, math, science, writing, music, and art, targeted support for children with special needs and learning disabilities, career and technical education training, and other academic or enrichment opportunities; and prioritizing program financial aid for low-income students?”

What it means: Phased in over the next three years, Proposition 119 would increase Colorado’s recreational marijuana sales tax from 15 percent to 20 percent. The added tax revenue would be used to establish the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress program (LEAP), which would pay mostly private tutoring companies to provide out-of-school instructional and developmental support to students ages five to 17 across the state. The measure includes a financial aid program that would prioritize children from lower-income families, something proponents argue would help diminish disparities in the state’s significant achievement gap, which was further exacerbated by school closures during the pandemic.

Proposition 119 supporters include Gary Community Ventures, a Colorado nonprofit that works with businesses and policymakers to reshape the state’s “opportunity landscape.” Youth organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs and Colorado Youth Congress have also come out in support of the measure.

The measure has a number of opponents in the education community, including the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives. The state’s largest teachers union has taken a neutral stance. Critics have questioned the advantages of creating a new education program, arguing that the state should instead invest directly in the existing system, which would expand the capacity of Colorado’s public schools. Members of the cannabis industry are also opposed to the measure, and suspect that the tax increase—apart from being regressive—would simply push consumers back into the black market.

Proposition 120 (Statutory)

What you’ll see: “Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning property tax reductions, and, in connection therewith, reducing property tax revenue by an estimated $1.03 billion in 2023 and by comparable amounts thereafter by reducing the residential property tax assessment rate from 7.15% to 6.5% and reducing the property tax assessment rate for all other property, excluding producing mines and lands or leaseholds producing oil or gas, from 29% to 26.4% and allowing the state to annually retain and spend up to $25 million of excess state revenue, if any, for state fiscal years 2022-23 through 2026-27 as a voter-approved revenue change to offset lost revenue resulting from the property tax rate reductions and to reimburse local governments for revenue lost due to the homestead exemptions for qualifying seniors and disabled veterans?”

What it means: Also sponsored by Michael Fields and Colorado Rising Action, Proposition 120 has been the subject of significant confusion. In his initial proposal, Fields outlined a plan to considerably reduce the property tax assessment rate on all properties in the state. Proponents argued that the tax reduction would help stabilize rent prices and stimulate investments that might ease the housing shortage. Critics, including the Bell Policy Center and most Democratic State Representatives, worry that the tax cut—which would total roughly $1 billion in revenue statewide—could threaten funding to school districts, fire departments, water and sewer districts, and other local services that rely on property tax revenue to operate.

But Fields’ vision was upended this summer when state lawmakers passed a set of laws that rewrote Colorado’s property tax code. In addition to temporarily lowering property tax rates, the legislature also changed key aspects of the legal language upon which Proposition 120 was built, significantly limiting the measure’s scope. The language in Proposition 120 had been approved by the state Supreme Court before the Assembly passed these laws, leaving no possibility for Fields to rewrite his bill. Because of the new tax laws, Proposition 120 would now only lower the property tax assessment rate for multifamily housing (from 7.15 percent to 6.5 percent) and for lodging properties, like hotels and B&B’s, starting in 2022. It would not apply to single-family homes, as the original bill intended. Fields has said he will challenge the state laws in court if the initiative passed.

The arguments for and against Proposition 120 in its original form still largely apply to the diluted version of the bill on your ballot. Governor Jared Polis recently came out in support of the measure, but didn’t offer much clarification as to what informed his stance. His stamp of approval likely came as a surprise (and disappointment) to fellow Democrats in the legislature, who have widely stuck together on the issue.

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