Local officials involved in 'Building a Better Colorado'

Untangling the unintended consequences of citizen initiatives gets complicated. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

An effort to address touchy political issues in Colorado law is getting support from San Luis Valley officials.

Dubbed Building a Better Colorado, the organization is in the early stages of developing a slate of ballot initiatives designed to fix what organizers call problematic elements of the state’s financial structure, election system – and the ballot initiative process.

The organization is the brainchild of Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver. Numerous heavy-hitters in Colorado politics have signed on to support the project, including former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, former Governors Roy Romer and Bill Ritter, Denver mayor Michael Hancock and former Denver mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Pena.

The list also includes Alamosa County Administrator Gigi Dennis, who previously served as a State Senator and Secretary of State.

“It really is a grassroots effort,” said Dennis. “We’re almost in a fiscal crisis in this state. We’re saying: here’s the problem, so how do we fix it?”

The organization’s efforts are broken down into possible changes to the state’s fiscal process, election process, and initiative process.

The organization says problems in the state’s fiscal process are largely due to unforeseen consequences of a set of conflicting constitutional mandates.

Colorado’s budget is constrained by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR amendment, which mandates in part that all tax increases must be approved by voters, and that revenues that feed the state’s General Fund – which pays for many of the state’s service obligations – cannot increase yearly by more than an amount determined by the increase in population plus inflation. Any revenues over that amount must be refunded to taxpayers.

Building a Better Colorado argues that this formula in untenable because it ties revenues to inflation in prices of consumer goods, whereas the price of government obligations like road projects, education, and health care increase at a rate greater than inflation.

Meanwhile, the voter-approved Amendment 23, which passed in 2000, mandated that the state increase spending on K-12 education at a rate determined by student enrollment plus inflation. During the recession, the state declared that a portion of K-12 funding was not covered by Amendment 23, as the basis to slash school funding.

However, the Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, progressively reduces property taxes, thus shifting the burden of K-12 funding from local property taxpayers to the state.

Taken together, the three laws mean that the state is on the hook to pay an ever-increasing amount toward K-12 education, but is increasingly hampered in its ability to collect revenues with which to pay.

Documents provided by Building a Better Colorado propose a set of possible legislative fixes, including asking voters to let the state retain revenue above limits currently set by TABOR, or a measure to create an education fund fully separate from the General Fund, and therefore not subject to TABOR limitations.

Another option involves removing the Hospital Provider Fee from the General Fund.

The Hospital Provider Fee, established in 2009, created a fund the state could use to help pay the state’s share of Medicaid bills. The fund resides in the state’s General Fund, and in effect brings one more diner to the table to divide up Colorado’s budget pie.

The option, endorsed by Adams State University and Alamosa Schools as well as many other educational institutions across the state, is to request that the legislature remove the Hospital Provider Fee funds from the General Fund and sequester the money in a separate Enterprise Fund, which would not fall under TABOR limitations, and would reduce the number of agencies vying for a piece of the state’s money available before TABOR rebates kick in.

The sequestration of K-12 funding and subsequent cuts have hit Alamosa hard, said Alamosa Schools superintendent Rob Alejo, who said that the district’s budget has been slashed by what’s called the “negative factor.”

He said the district has been operating on smaller budgets for years now.

“That first year we went through the district budget line by line and started cutting,” Alejo said. “Now it’s just a matter of living with the budget they provide us. This is money you don’t count on. You can see what you would have gotten, but it’s money you plan around.”

The next element Building a Better Colorado seeks to address is Colorado’s election process.

According to the organization’s materials, Colorado leads the nation in the percentage increase of unaffiliated voters since 2008, now representing the largest chunk of the state’s active voters at around 37%. Unaffiliated voters cannot vote in party caucuses unless they temporarily register with a party, a convoluted process that means that many unaffiliated voters are unlikely to cast a ballot in caucuses.

Building a Better Colorado proposes several methods to address low turnout for caucuses, including reinstating state primaries for presidential elections, which were eliminated in 2003 because of budgetary constraints, or creating a ballot style that includes the candidates from all major parties and sending it to all unaffiliated voters.

The organization also seeks to address the current set of term limits imposed on state lawmakers, which limits state Representatives and Senators from serving more than two four-year terms.

“Term limits put your institutional knowledge with lobbyists or staff,” said Dennis. “I went into the state senate in 1995. The first round of term limits hit in 1996. I got to serve with some quality people who had been there quite a while. What you learn from them is that seasoned legislators look at the state as a whole. When you’re in there for such a definitive amount of time, they get more cynical and act only for their district, instead of looking at the state as a whole, in my opinion.”

Dennis said term limits chase off good representatives.

“I think they’ve created a real nuisance for us,” Dennis said. “You get good representation – right now you’ve got Representative Ed Vigil who can’t run again, we’ve only got one term left of Senator Larry Crowder, and I think both those guys have represented their district well, and if they wanted to run again, they can’t.”

That might not be a problem for Senator Crowder.

“Call me old fashioned, but I think two terms is enough,” said Crowder. “I don’t know why anyone would make a career out of this. To be a transparent government, we need change once in a while.”

The final element addressed by the effort is Colorado’s ballot initiative process, which Building a Better Colorado says is too easy.

“Colorado’s signature threshold for citizen initiatives to qualify for the ballot is among the lowest in the country,” reads the group’s promotional materials. “And is the same for proposed statutes and proposed amendments.”

This can result in the state’s constitution getting jam-packed, said Dennis.

“This is the burr under my saddle: when people do these initiatives, they’re running them as constitutional amendments,” said Dennis. “So by putting it in the constitution, instead of a statutory change, there’s no way to fix it without going back to the vote of the people.”

The state’s constitution can hamstring legislators, said Wright.

“Our constitution is ridiculously long,” said Wright. “We elect officials to go the state and represent us, then we tie their hands and don’t let them do it. That needs to be changed. We need it to still be a possibility to change our Constitution, but this is not what the founding fathers intended. If there needs to be a referendum, our legislators can change that.”

Dennis said many of the state’s constitutional amendments would work better as statutory law.

“Look at our US Constitution,” said Dennis. “We haven’t cluttered it up with marijuana, tax policy, or gay marriage.”

The Building a Better Colorado initiative will be holding a series of town hall meetings across the state until the end of the year. Though Alamosa’s has already passed, those interested in the effort can provide input via the organization’s website at betterco.org.