Ballot Buster 2018
Breaking down this year's initiatives so you don't have to
When it comes to this year’s ballot, to trot out a well-worn phrase: it’s complicated.
Not only are there more numbers and mathematical equations than your high school SAT, but there are moral and ethical dilemmas to grapple with as well. Jobs and economy or clean air and water? Kids or roads? Throw in a little campaign finance and gerrymandering, a pinch of legislative voodoo, and it’s enough to scare anyone off. Not to mention the ever-present specter of the chained ghosts of ballots past: Gallagher and TABOR.
But fear not, intrepid voter. The Telegraph has combed the interwebs, airwaves and blue booklets all in the name of decoding this year’s monstrous ballot. We’ve broken down the arguments into what we hope is a concise and user-friendly format. And, for what it’s worth, we’ve even included our own inclinations.
Of course, in the end, it’s up to you to vote with your gut, heart and, most importantly, head. So fire up that pen and buckle up. And don’t sweat it too much, the only way to truly fail at this oval-filling endeavor is to not vote at all.
Ballot Issue 2A
In a nutshell: Authorizes the City of Durango to levy an additional 5.4 mills on property tax and an additional .55 percent on sales tax. A 5.4 mill increase would cost property owners about $39 for every $100,000 in a home’s assessed value. In other words, about $200/year for the average home valued at $500,000. The .55 percent sales tax would bring the City’s sales tax rate to 8.45 percent.
The money raised will go toward a new police station, public safety, code enforcement, and city street and building upkeep. If approved, it would raise at least $187.5 million for the city by 2043.
If the measure isn’t approved, the city will be forced to cut services by 2020, according to city officials.
• Durango streets are deteriorating, and the cost of upkeep is much cheaper than waiting for complete failure, like in the case of Florida Road.
• The Police Department, a refurbished car dealership, is inadequate and doesn’t have enough space for the eight additional employees it needs.
• The city hasn’t raised property taxes since 1982, and Durango and Colorado have some of the lowest property taxes in the country.
• The ballot measure is irresponsible and wasteful; the city should find revenue elsewhere in its budget or General
• The City should consider asking voters to re-appropriate funds from the half-cent Parks and Recreation sales tax.
Our Two Cents: Think of 2A as preventive maintenance, like putting tires on your car. Much as we hate to shell out big bucks for something so unsexy, in the long run, you’ll be happy you did. Plus, it sure beats a catastrophic blow-out. And, sorry, drawing correlations between Durango and the Rose of the Mont to bolster arguments against 2A is completely absurd. We need to invest in Durango’s future now. Vote yes on 2A.
Amendment 73: School Funding
In a nutshell: Increases funding for public education by raising the state income tax for individuals/joint filers making over $150,000. Currently, everyone in the state is taxed at 4.63 percent. The new brackets would start at 5 percent for those making between $150,000-$200,000 and ratchet up from there. The highest bracket would be 8.25 percent for those making +$500,000 a year.
The measure would “fix” the state’s residential property tax rate, which has fallen by 21 percent since 1983 due to the Gallagher Amendment, at 7 percent (it is currently at 7.2 percent but expected to fall to 6.2 in 2019-20.) It will also slightly decrease nonresidential property tax, from 29 to 24 percent.
And last but not least, it would increase the corporate tax (also at 4.63) to 6 percent.The money – an estimated $1.6 billion the first year alone – will increase per pupil spending by more than $500/year; fully fund kindergarten; lower requirements to be considered “low-income;” and add millions for special education, gifted and talented, English-language proficiency and preschool.
The measure needs a super-majority to pass.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because in 2016, voters in the 9-R School District approved a mill-levy override – as a majority of districts in the state have done – to make ends meet in the face of the Great Recession and something known as the “negative factor” (i.e. legislative voodoo.) That measure generated $1.7 million for 9-R in 2017. Amendment 74 is estimated to bring in another $8 million in its first year for 9-R. the school board would need to decide how to spend the additional money. One idea is to lower local property taxes for businesses.
(And in case you were wondering about all that pot money, it’s designated mostly for school safety infrastructure. Thus far, Durango has received $70,000 for a partial new roof at Park Elementary and new boilers at two other elementary schools.)
• Despite having one of the strongest economies in the country, Colorado lags in per pupil funding by an average of $2,685.
• The formula used to fund education in Colorado uses something called “the cost-of-living factor,” which inexplicably diverts money from struggling rural schools to wealthier mountain towns. 74 will help even the playing field.
• Since 2010, school funding has been cut by $7.2 billion, forcing schools to limit teacher salaries, increase class size, cut mental health services, and narrow course offerings. About half of Colorado school districts now operate on a four-day week.
• If 74 passes, it could free up state funds for social services, Medicaid, transportation and other expenditures.
• There is no guarantee funds from 74 will be used for teachers’ salaries as touted. In 2017, only 55 percent of money spent by schools went to instructional needs.
• The tax question is premature. A bipartisan legislative committee is currently studying an overhaul of the School Finance Act. In addition, since 2012, state school funding has increased every year. This year, the state increased school funding by $425.6 million without a tax increase.
• Increasing state income taxes could hurt the state’s economy.
Our 2 cents: We have seen this perfect storm of a hamstrung state budget, freefalling property tax formulas and well-intentioned tinkering on the horizon for some time. And now, something’s got to give. Let’s not let it be our childrens’ educations – aren’t there enough idiots in the world? For most of us, this will have little to no bearing on our tax bills. And for the 1-and 2-percenters, it will be a relative drop in the golden bucket – a small price to pay for a population that knows the difference between their, they’re and there.
Amendment 74: Compensation for Fair Market Value
In a nutshell: Despite its wordy title, the premise behind this is simple: state or local governments would be required to compensate property owners if a law or regulation leads to a reduction in the fair market value of their property.
This includes owners of mineral rights. The amendment is a “poison pill” to Proposition 112 (see below), which seeks to increase fracking setbacks. Amendment 74 is sponsored by the Colorado Farm Bureau. Backers include Protect Colorado, Colorado's Shared Heritage and Doug Bruce’s “13 Issues.”
It requires a 55 percent, super majority.
• For many Coloradans, property is their most significant asset. This would ensure property owners, particularly ranchers and farmers who make a living from mineral rights, get compensated for those losses.
• Has potentially far-reaching and costly consequences. Could have a chilling effect on everyday government decisions that otherwise would benefit the public.
• A similar law in Oregon resulted in billions of dollars in “takings” lawsuits and nearly bankrupted several counties. It was gutted a few years later by voters.
Our Two Cents: If Doug Bruce’s support isn’t a red flag, we don’t know what is. While we understand the need to protect property, this amendment sends chills up our spine – for all the wrong reasons. In this litigious society, who’s to say where such a law will lead. (Interestingly, we wonder if proponents considered that this measure can cut both ways and be used by homeowners whose values have decreased due to fracking.) Nevertheless, unless you want to shell out millions and bankrupt the city and county over this Pandora’s box, vote no.
Amendment 75: Campaign Finance Limits
In a nutshell: If any candidate for state office contributes more than $1 million to his or her own campaign, other candidates for the same office may accept five times the amount allowed from individual donors. The measure only applies to elections at the state level.
Currently, candidates running for state office can raise up to $1,150 from each donor, while down-ballot candidates are limited to $400. This would increase those limits to $5,750 and $2,000, respectively.
Notably, the limits would increase for everyone – including the candidate that triggers it. And the amendment would also take effect if a candidate “facilitates or coordinates” third-party contributions worth more than $1M, such as from a super-PAC.
It needs a 55 percent, super majority.
• Would level the fundraising field for candidates facing wealthy opponents.
• It would still take almost 173 individual donations at the fivefold threshold to reach $1 million.
• Colorado’s campaign finance laws are a jumbled mess and need more help than this. Loopholes allow independent committees to raise unlimited amounts, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate.
• Could inject even more money into the political system.
• The backers of this measure are a secret, which seems a bit hypocritical.
Our Two Cents: 74 has its flaws, but it’s a start toward more honest and fair elections. Money can buy a lot of things, but it shouldn’t buy public office. Vote yes on 75.
Prop 109: “Fix Our Damn Roads”
In a nutshell: Authorizes $3.5 billion in bonds to fund CDOT projects including bridge expansions and repairs; and road and highway construction, maintenance and repairs. The state would be required to repay the debt from its General Fund.
Background: CDOT receives most of its revenue from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. However, more efficient vehicles and inflation (the tax was last increased to 22 cents a gallon in 1991) has chipped away at CDOT’s bottom line. Today, there is a $9 billion backlog in state transportation projects. To remedy the situation, in May, state legislators passed a bill that dictated if citizens failed to bring and pass a transportation bond this November, it would bring its own bond issue to voters in November 2019. Legislators got not one but two citizen measures this year: “Fix Our Damn Roads” (109, a bond issue) and “Let’s Go Colorado,” (110, a bond and tax increase, see below.)
In the event that both pass, the one with the most votes will supersede the other on any points of conflict. If neither passes, lawmakers will come to voters with their own, smaller proposal next year.
The last transportation bond was approved in 1999 for $1.5B. Repayment totaled $2.3B and was repaid by 2016.
• Accelerates construction of essential highway projects without raising taxes and directs the state to prioritize highway projects ahead of other programs.
• Lack of highway capacity is the most significant contributor to traffic in the state, causing delays, increasing business costs and reducing safety.
• The debt only allows for $2.2B bonding capacity, which doesn’t begin to address CDOT’s $9 billion backlog.
• Has no dedicated source of revenue to repay that debt, which means it could be repaid using funds allocated to other critical needs like health care and schools.
• Borrowing money is expensive. About $1.7 billion will be spent on interest.
Our two cents: We agree the state’s highways and roads need upgrades, but we don’t believe we should rob Peter to pay Paul. Plus, 109 comes with a list of predetermined projects over the next 20 years with little wiggle room for innovation or change. The counter proposal 110 is a better damn option (without swearing!) Vote no on 109.
Prop 110: Let’s Go Colorado
In a nutshell: Authorizes $6 billion in bonds and a .62 percent (from 2.9 to 3.52 percent) increase in the state sales tax for 20 years starting Jan. 1, 2019. Would also establish a citizens oversight committee. Funds would go to the state’s transportation backlog as well as mass transit, pedestrian, bike and rail projects.
Background: (For more on Colorado’s transportation woes, see above, Prop 109.) Meantime, here are some stats from TRIP, a nonprofit national transportation group:
• 40 percent of major urban roads and highways in Colorado are in poor or mediocre condition.
• Driving on deteriorated roads costs the Colorado driver $468 annually in vehicle operating costs.
• Congested roads cost Colorado drivers $3.1 billion a year in lost time and fuel.
• Creates a flexible, statewide transportation solution and lets local communities prioritize their most urgent needs.
• Creates a dedicated source of funding that won’t force cuts in other areas.
• Transportation is a fundamental government service that should be funded through the state. Any shortfall is the fault of poor prioritization.
• Dedicates too much revenue to multimodal transportation, money that should be used exclusively for roads.
• Sales taxes are already high, exceeding 10 percent in some areas. Raising them disproportionately affects low-income people.
Our Two Cents: We like that 110 includes multimodal (bike lanes!) and mass transit projects. As Colorado continues to grow and climate change is more of a concern, we need to think outside the yellow lines. (And maybe there will be some dough to help with the Durango-Bayfield commute.) We also like that it has its own funding source, is malleable and has a citizens oversight committee. Vote yes on 110.
Prop 112: Minimum Distance for New Oil, Gas and Fracking
In a nutshell: Increases setbacks for new oil and gas wells from 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet from schools, health care centers and other high-occupancy buildings to 2,500 feet (half a mile). The set-back would apply to occupied buildings such as homes, schools and hospitals, as well as “vulnerable” areas such as playgrounds, lakes and rivers. The setbacks would not apply to federal or tribal lands.
The proposal would allow state or local governments the right to designate “vulnerable areas” independently. And, as a statute, the state Legislature would be able to tweak the law if it proved too onerous.
The measure is supported by a grassroots citizens group, Colorado Rising, that says greater setbacks will reduce health and nuisance impacts – headaches, nausea, traffic and dust to name a few – while giving property owners greater certainty about the location of new wells. The 2,500-foot setback is backed by scientific studies as well as polling. If passed, it would be the most stringent setback in the country.
Opponents of 112 include Protect Colorado, as well as the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Doug Bruce’s (there he is again) 13 Issues. So far, opponents have outspent proponents by a margin of 21 to one, dumping close to $17 million in the fight against 112.
Needs a simple majority to pass.
Background: In 2010, five Colorado communities passed moratoriums or bans on fracking. However, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee objected, and in 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with the COGCC and overturned the rules.
As a result, fracking opponents tried to get a setback measure on the ballot in 2016. But their petition was thrown out by the Secretary of State on the grounds it did not collect enough valid signatures.
Prop 112 is the second coming of this measure. It was buoyed by the high-profile house explosion in Firestone in 2017 that killed two people as well as studies linking fracking to cancer rates and other maladies.
From 2013-17, oil and gas production doubled in the state. The state currently has 55,000 producing wells (half of which are in Weld County) and 20,000 inactive wells. It is not unusual for neighborhoods on the Front Range to be in close proximity to drilling complexes of 40 or more wells.
According to the COGCC, about 85 percent of state-owned and private land, or 54 percent of the state’s total acreage, would be off limits to drilling under 112, mostly as a result of the 2,500-foot “vulnerable” area buffer. However, a study by the Colorado School of Mines found that the land available to new activity would be nearly three times that, given the use of horizontal drilling. Assuming firms could drill horizontally for 1 mile, 42 percent of non-federal lands would be accessible.
La Plata County is the state’s third-highest gas producer with about 2,900 active wells. About 60 percent of the county’s non-federal lands would be closed to new drilling. Bear in mind, the southern part of the county is Southern Ute Tribal land, and the tribe may not adopt the new setbacks.
The legislative council estimates the measure will have a negative impact on state and local revenues. Due to market conditions, oil and gas tax collections fluctuate wildly year to year. In 2017, oil and natural gas producers paid an estimated $496.7 million in property taxes to local governments and school and special districts across the state.
In La Plata County, oil and gas makes up for about 26 percent of property taxes, or around $3.7 million. However, oil and gas activity has been slowly declining for decades.
• People living near fracking have experienced respiratory problems, headaches and nausea as well as increased noise, traffic, dust, light and odors. Studies link emissions to cancer, respiratory problems, endocrine disruption, low birth weights, birth defects, high infant mortality and more. In addition, fracking fouls air, water and land and deteriorates home values.
• Prop 112 provides property owners with greater certainty about the location of new wells and may help improve the quality of life and property values.
• There have been at least 15 oil and gas related explosions since 2017, several of which have killed or severely burned workers and residents.
• More than 2,200 complaints related to oil and gas have been filed with the COGCC since January 2015
• Allegations of economic adversity as a result of 112 are overblown. Less than 1 percent of Colorado’s state revenue is generated by oil and gas. In 2014-15, when oil and gas slumped due to a glut in supply and prices, the state’s economy actually increased.
• The setbacks only apply to new wells. Colorado currently has more than 50,000 producing wells that will not be affected.
• Oil and gas is important to Colorado’s economy, generating an estimated $10.9 billion in production value in 2017 and supporting as many as 34,000 jobs and many other industries. Proposition 112 will reduce these economic benefits and put jobs at risk. It may result in lower payments to mineral owners and reduced tax revenue for schools and other services.
• Existing COGCC setback requirements provide a balanced approach to protecting public health, safety and the environment. The existing setbacks were developed through a collaborative process and guided by technical expertise. Under current law, the COGCC has the authority to modify setbacks in the future, if needed.
• The measure will shut down the state’s oil and gas industry, causing companies to pack up and move out of state.
• The setback distance is arbitrary and capricious and not scientifically based. More studies are needed to determine if fracking emissions harm humans.
Our two cents: Quite possibly the most contentious and divisive measure on this year’s ballot, we really wrestled with this one. However, the more we dug into it, the more the benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde haze began to clear: more study is needed on fracking exposure. Isn’t it better to be safe then sorry?
Sure, oil and gas brings money into the state, but what about the costs we pay with our health, environment, climate and quality of life? People and heavy industry don’t mix – plain and simple. And if you think this is only a Front Range problem, you need only take a drive out into the county or check out the methane hot spot hovering over the Four Corners.
Plus, one can’t help but be reminded of the lessons of hard-rock and uranium mining here. What happens when the industry goes belly up and citizens are left holding the bag for the clean-up of tens of thousands of leaky wells and contaminated sites?
Enough is enough. Prop 112 sends a message to oil and gas that they can no longer run roughshod over the land and carpet bomb every last corner of our beautiful state. It’s time to move away from extractive energy and find cleaner solutions, and the climate clock is ticking. Even if this means some people never talk to me again, vote yes on 112.