Editor’s Note: Initiated Ordinances 301 & 302 are about the Park Hill Golf Course. The printed November issue incorrectly referred to these initiatives as the City Park Golf Course. Our apologies for the error.
For this explanation of the 2021 ballot measures, Front Porch called on an expert, Todd Engdahl, whose company, Capitol Editorial Services, is a research firm that provides services to lobbying firms and advocacy groups at the Colorado legislature. He’s a former executive city editor of The Denver Post, he launched DenverPost.com and was a co-founder of the website Education News Colorado.
Denver voters have to slog through a long ballot
Voters in Denver this year are faced with 13 complicated ballot measures that concern improvements to the city’s infrastructure, including a new arena; repeal of a controversial housing law; changing the date of city elections; homelessness and limits on the mayor’s power, among other things. The list of measures also includes two battling proposals for the future of the Park Hill Golf Course.
Eight of the measures were placed on the ballot by the Denver City Council and are called Referred Questions. The five other measures got on the ballot by citizen petition and are called Initiated Ordinances. City officials said the ballot includes the largest number of citizen-initiated measures they can remember.
This article summarizes the measures in the order they appear on the ballot, beginning with the Referred Questions. The first five of those measures propose a $450 million package of bonds to pay for a wide variety of city projects, including cultural facilities, homeless services, recreation facilities, transportation improvements and $190 million in upgrades at the National Western Center, including a new arena to replace the 70-year-old Denver Coliseum. More than 80 projects would be paid for by the package.
Mayor Michael Hancock originally proposed a single bond measure. But some City Council members oppose the arena plan, so they broke the bond package into five measures so voters could pick and choose. The measures wouldn’t raise property taxes because they would use existing bonding authority. The bond plans comes close on the heels of the $937 million in bonds approved by voters in 2017, of which $375 million remains to be spent.
Referred Question 2A – Cultural facilities bonds
This measure proposes $104 million in bonds to pay for repairs and improvements at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Bonfils Theater Complex, Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Denver Zoo, plus preservation of the May Bonfils Stanton Theater on the Loretto Heights Campus. These bonds also would pay for new branch libraries in Globeville and Westwood, a youth center and accessibility improvements at various city facilities.
Referred Question 2B – Shelter facilities
The $38 million requested in this measure would be used to upgrade and expand the city’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness, including purchase, conversion and/or construction of buildings.
Referred Question 2C – Transportation
Improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians are the main focus of this $63.3 million bond plan. Projects to be funded include expansion of the city’s sidewalk network; renovation of existing bike lanes and expansion of such lanes; crosswalk, traffic signal and median projects; reconstruction of Morrison Road and pedestrian improvements downtown.
Referred Question 2D –Parks
The $54 million included in this proposal would be used to develop two new parks and fund improvements and restoration at existing parks, including rebuilding the swimming pool at Mestizo-Curtis Park.
Referred Question 2E –National Western
This is the big one, a proposed $190 million issue to build a 10,000-seat multi-use arena at the National Western Complex and to renovate the 1909 amphitheater building. Some $160 million would be used to build the arena, with $50 million in additional costs covered by other sources. The arena is the largest single project in the whole package and has been strongly pushed by Hancock but was opposed by four council members. Some groups in the neighboring Globeville and Elyria-Swansea areas have opposed the arena. Beyond the National Western projects, other big-ticket items in the package are the theater renovation at Loretto Heights at $30 million, the Westwood Branch Library construction at $13.88 million and the Morrison Road reconstruction at $13 million.
Here are the non-bond referred questions on the Denver ballot:
Referred Question 2F – Housing laws
Passage of this measure would repeal a controversial law passed earlier this year.
Last February the City Council amended city law to allow up to five unrelated adults to live in one detached house, up from the previous limit of two. (There is no limit on the number of related people living together.) The law change also allowed greater density of residential care and group living facilities.
Council members and some city planners believe the change was necessary to provide more housing opportunities during a time when affordable housing is scarce.
But opponents, including many neighborhood organizations around the city, believe the ordinance will degrade neighborhood quality by increasing density and encouraging boarding-house living situations.
A group named Safe and Sound Denver organized a petition campaign and gathered enough signatures to force City Council to put 2F on the ballot. If it passes, city law will return to the previous limit of two unrelated people living in the same home.
Referred Question 2G – Independent police monitor
In recent years City Council has tried to chip away at Denver’s “strong mayor” government structure. A recently passed ballot measure gave the council confirmation power over certain mayoral appointees. This year the council is pushing 2G, which would eliminate the mayor’s power to appoint the head of the Office of Independent Monitor. That’s the office that oversees police disciplinary investigations. Passage of this measure would give that appointment power to the city’s Citizen Oversight Board.
Referred Question 2H – City elections
Regular Denver elections for mayor and council members currently are held on the first Tuesday in May in odd-numbered years. If necessary, runoff elections are held in June. This measure, being pushed by Clerk and Recorder Paul Lopez, would move the May election to the first Tuesday in April. He argues that would provide needed time to prepare for the June election, including for sending out and return of mail ballots.
Initiated Ordinance 300 – Marijuana taxes and pandemic research
This measure would increase the city’s special marijuana tax from 5.5 percent to 7 percent in order to generate $7 million annually. That money would go to the CU Denver CityCenter to fund research on protective equipment, disinfection and on public policy responses to pandemics. The CityCenter is a consulting arm of CU—and it says it has no connection with the ballot measure.
According to published reports, the backer is an out-of-state group named Guarding Against Pandemics that is partly funded by crypto-currency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. His brother, Gabe, is head of the organization and is a former congressional staffer.
Initiated Ordinances 301 & 302 – Park Hill Golf Course
These are the dueling—and confusing—proposals for the future of the closed golf course at Colorado Blvd. and E. 35th Ave. They are part of the fight between neighborhood groups that want to preserve the course as a park or open space and other interests who want mixed-use development on the site, along with a park. It’s become a legal and political issue because the course is covered by a conservation easement that protects it, so city council and/or voter involvement may be required.
A group named Yes for Parks and Open Space supports 301, which basically would preserve the course as open space. Another organization called Empower NE Denver supports 302, which would allow for development, along with a park.
A detailed article in September’s edition of Front Porch sorts out the conflict – read it here—https://frontporchne.com/article/ballot-will-determine-fate-of-park-hill-golf-course/
Here are the potential outcomes:
If 301 passes and 302 fails, development of the course couldn’t happen without city-wide voter approval.
If 301 fails and 302 passes, development of the property will be allowed if approved by City Council.
In the event that both pass or both fail, development will be allowed if approved by council.
Initiated Ordinance 303 – Homeless camping
Proposed by Garrett Flicker, chair of the Denver Republican Party, this measure would require stricter enforcement of Denver’s camping ban, allow citizens to file formal complaints and even sue the city if it doesn’t enforce the ban and would allow establishment of four authorized camping locations on public property. Homeless advocacy groups oppose the measure.
Initiated Ordinance 304 – Sales taxes
Another Flicker proposal, this ordinance would cap Denver’s combined sales and use tax rate at 4.5 percent, down from the 4.8 percent currently levied. It would also require the city to reduce existing taxes if voters approve new ones above the new cap. It’s unclear whether that would infringe on voters’ constitutional right to raise taxes.
More information: See the texts of all Denver ballot measures on this sample ballot – https://www.denvergov.org/files/assets/public/elections/documents/sample-ballots/2021coordinated-sampleballot_combo.pdf
What’s the difference between an amendment and a proposition?
For statewide ballot measures, constitutional changes are called amendments; changes to state law are called propositions. Constitutional changes require approval by 55 percent of voters, but propositions pass with a simple majority. Once something is in the constitution it takes another statewide vote to change or remove a provision. But a new law approved by voters can later be amended by the legislature. Amendments and propositions proposed by voters are assigned numbers; ballot measures referred by the legislature are assigned letters.
How Measures Get on the Ballot: Initiatives and Referenda
Initiatives are proposals made by advocacy groups that have gathered the required number of petition signatures. A measure placed on the ballot by two-thirds votes of both houses of the legislature is called a referendum.
Voters face fewer state measures, but proposals are complicated
After wrestling with a mind-bending list of 11 state ballot measures on the 2020 ballot, voters get something of a break this year, with only three statewide measures.
But those measures are complicated, so voters will need to devote careful study to the proposals. Here’s the lineup:
Amendment 78 – Legislative spending authority
What it would do – This proposed constitutional amendment would require the state legislature to “appropriate”—directly approve spending—of certain funds that now are spent by state agencies
Context and history – Colorado lawmakers approve a state budget every year—the budget for 2021-22 is about $34 billion. Some $12 billion of that comes largely from state income and sales taxes.
But other funds—estimated to total at least $24 billion—go directly to state agencies for spending. That money is referred to as “custodial funds,” meaning that it’s intended for specific uses and that state agencies are custodians for spending. One example is the money the state receives from lawsuit settlements, but custodial funds also include some federal money.
Spending of custodial funds hasn’t been a controversial issue in the past, and large sums are spent annually by non-legislative entities like the State Transportation Commission, colleges and universities, the attorney general, and the governor.
But the massive flow of federal COVID-19 relief funding that began in 2020 raised some hackles among conservatives and some legislators because much of it went directly to the office of Gov. Jared Polis, which redistributed it.
The amendment is being pushed by the Committee for Spending Transparency, a campaign group connected to Colorado Rising Action, a conservative, small-government advocacy group. Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action, is the initiative’s sponsor and formerly was state director for Americans for Prosperity.
How it would work – Amendment 78 would require custodial funds be appropriated by the legislature after such money is deposited in a central account from which the legislature would dole it out to the appropriate agencies or recipients. Funds that are earmarked for particular uses would remain restricted—it’s just that the legislature would make the decisions, not a state agency. The legislature would have to hold public hearings on uses of custodial funds.
Management of the current state budget is a complicated, year-around business now. It involves the staff of the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget (OSPB), professional analysts who work for the legislative Joint Budget Committee (JBC), and accountants who work for the state controller, not to mention the scores of budget officers and accountants in individual state agencies.
Work on the each year’s budget starts with OSPB and agencies early in the summer, and the JBC starts work in November on a budget plan that doesn’t get approved by the full legislature until March or April—just in time for the executive branch to start work on the proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
No one knows what sort of systems and procedures would have to be set up to enable lawmakers to review all the additional money. But a legislative staff review estimates it could cost at least $1 million a year.
Proposition 119 – Academic enrichment
What it would do – This proposal would create a state Colorado Learning Authority to administer a scholarship program students could use for out-of-school learning and enrichment activities. It would be funded mostly by an increase in marijuana taxes.
Context and history – Education reform and business groups long have argued that many students, especially minorities and lower income children, need tutoring and academic other enrichment programs to gain skills needed to succeed in school and to place them on an equal footing with students from wealthier families that can afford to pay for enrichment.
Colorado schools are considered underfunded as it is, so there hasn’t been money in the regular state budget for a program like this. So backers of the idea turned to proposing an increase in marijuana taxes.
In addition, interest in out-of-school learning has increased because most smaller Colorado districts have moved to four-day weeks and because school disruptions caused by the pandemic have led to student learning loss.
Despite the feel-good aspects of the plan, traditional education interest groups are skeptical about the proposal because the program would operate independently of other state agencies, because it would tap into some existing education funds in addition to the marijuana revenues and because public money would go to private providers.
And some policymakers and marijuana industry leaders fear higher taxes on legal sales would spark growth in illegal, black market marijuana, affecting sales on legal marijuana.
How it would work – If passed the measure would launch a phased sales tax increase on retail marijuana and marijuana products from the current 15 percent rate to 18 percent in 2022, 19 percent in 2023 and 20 percent in 2024 and after.
The higher taxes would raise an estimated $87.1 million in its first full year of operation, 2022-23. In that year the program also would tap $22 million in state lands revenues that currently go to public schools.
The learning authority would operate independently of the Department of Education and would oversee creation of the program, which is intended to provide needs-based scholarships that students could use to pay for out-of-school programs at a variety of approved providers.
Proposition 120 – Property tax assessment rates
What it would do – The measure would lower property tax assessment rates for some types of property.
Context and history – Property taxes for Colorado homes, apartment buildings and other real estate are not calculated based on a property’s market value but rather on a percentage of market value, called the assessment rate. Actual tax bills are based on what are called mill levies, which are calculated against the assessed value.
The original ballot measure, pushed by conservative operative Michael Fields and deep-pocketed allies (see Amendment 78 above), originally proposed to cut the residential property tax assessment rate from 7.15 percent to 6.5 percent and the non-residential property tax assessment rate from 29 percent to 26.4 percent.
But the 2020 legislative session cut Fields & Co. off at the pass when it passed SB 21-293, which made several complicated changes in assessment rates, including temporary reductions in some rates.
How it would work – The net effect of that bill means that Proposition 120, if passed, would apply only to multifamily housing properties (a 6.5 percent assessment rate), and to lodging properties (reduced to 26.4 percent).
Regardless of whether this proposition passes or not, the whole issue is expected to land in court.
More information: Voters are mailed an official state ballot measure guide, nicknamed the Blue Book, which contains texts of and information about each of the measures on the statewide ballot. If you didn’t receive one or lost it in that pile of junk mail on the kitchen counter, you can read the online version here – https://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/images/2021_blue_book_english.pdf