Energy, Featured, Peter Blake, Politics

Blake: With ballot initiatives, Polis shooting flies with an elephant gun

What is it about flat, workaday Weld County that improbably inspires rich people to buy retreats there — and then go to war with neighboring businesses which employ ordinary citizens who have to work for a living?

They don’t simply wage that war in the local courts or at the zoning board. They open up their wallets and finance statewide ballot issues, which is like shooting flies with an elephant gun.

The latest is U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who discovered a drilling operation last summer on land adjacent to his 50-acre weekend retreat near Berthoud. This outrage prompted him to get behind numerous pending initiatives which could severely limit drilling for oil and gas — not just in Weld but all over Colorado.

Polis is following in the footsteps of the many-tentacled billionaire Phil Anschutz, who didn’t like the odors emanating from a large hog farm that operated adjacent to his Weld County ranch in the 1990s

Anschutz promoted, and put $100,000 into, a 1998 ballot issue designed to put such hog farms under much stricter state environmental regulations, including waste management and odor control. The hog farm countered with its own initiative, which would have required that regulations imposed on one type of livestock would have to apply to all animal operations.

Anschutz’s issue won, the hog farm’s lost. The farm subsequently went out of business.

Polis filed a lawsuit against Sundance Energy last summer but soon abandoned it in favor of a complaint to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It ended up fining Sundance $26,000 for drilling too close to a power line and road, but the fired-up Polis decided to go ahead with numerous 2014 ballot proposals aimed at restricting oil and gas operations.

They would impose various setbacks between drilling rigs and occupied structures, and authorize varying degrees of local control. Not all are going on the ballot, of course; apparently two or three will be chosen after polling determines which ones are most likely to pass.

Polis isn’t the only one promoting such measures, but he is the face of the anti-drilling movement in Colorado at this moment.

The congressman is supposed to be concentrating on national issues, not state and local ones, but he always seems to have time for causes beyond the scope of whatever political job he is holding. In 2006, for instance, toward the end of his six-year term on the state board of education, Polis took time to promote Amendment 41, an initiative which had nothing to do with education. It banned all gifts from lobbyists to government officials, limited gifts from non-lobbyists to public officials to $50 a year, and established a two-year “cooling off period” for legislators who want to become lobbyists after leaving office. It passed handily.

Polis was first elected to Congress in 2008, succeeding Mark Udall in the Boulder-based 2nd District. But so far he has not found time to repeat his Amendment 41 success and launch a constitutional amendment — or even a House rule — that might impose a stricter ethics code on Congress.

The starts of Polis’ political career wold be an interesting economic study on the value of a single vote. Fresh off a new fortune made by turning a greeting-card company founded by his parents into a dot-com and selling it while the market was hot, Polis spent $1.2 million in 2000 campaigning for his seat on the state board of education. It’s a nonpaying job, but it’s a foot in the political door. His rival, Montrose Republican Ben Alexander, spent just over $10,000.

Polis won by just 90 votes — the closest statewide race in Colorado history. But the victory made it possible for him work in politics directly instead of from the outside, like fellow wealthy Democrats Pat Stryker and Ted Gill.

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Polis had every right to spend as much as he wanted of his own money on his political career. The courts have long held that there can be no limits on what you can give your campaign from your own fortune. Perhaps that’s why the rich tend to do so well in politics. Their less wealthy rivals are limited on what they can collect from other people.

On the other hand, if you have an effective message, right or wrong, you can win by spending almost no money, as David Brat proved in Virginia.

He upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary after spending less than $200,000 to Cantors $4.8 million. That’s a ratio of 24 to 1.

But results like that have no impact on the Democratic playbook. Within days, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., was out with another message urging supporters to sign a petition urging an end to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. That ruling said that corporations and unions had the same right to First Amendment free speech — which includes spending money — as individuals.

Udall also threw in the usual reference to those evil Koch Brothers who are spending millions on behalf of other people’s candidacies.

Who knows, Polis might have won his board of education seat by spending a whole lot less than he did. But it was his choice, as it should be. Winning candidates — and ballot issues — in Colorado aren’t necessarily going to be those on whom the most money is spent.

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