There are two types of questions on your election ballot, people and issues.
The people part of the ballot is straight forward. Who do you want? Gardner or Hickenlooper? Trump or Biden?
You might dislike the choices, but you understand the question.
Then there are those issue questions. Some are simple and clear. Prop 116, for which I am the proponent, is simple enough, “Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes reducing the state income tax rate from 4.63% to 4.55%?”
Twenty words. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Do you want a small tax cut or not?
Prop 118, a payroll tax for a state-run family leave system, clocks in at 277 words. That could have been a three-page essay back in my college days (using my special system of triple spacing and extra wide margins that I’m sure the teachers never suspected).
When citizens bring an initiative they want to get on the ballot it goes to the Title Board. This appointed three-member panel has two jobs.
First, they have to decide if the initiative consists of a “single subject.” This is a largely subjective call. A measure to reduce the income tax rate but also require people to wear their underwear on the outside of their pants on Tuesdays would likely fail that single subject test.
If the board agrees that it’s a single subject then they, all three of them together, write a description of what the initiative does. It’s that description you read on your ballot. It’s called the “ballot title.” And how it’s written can make or break its chance of passing.
Prop 117 is a perfect example of a wildly popular idea that will likely lose on election day because of the way the title is written.
The most popular part of our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) is the requirement that government can’t raise your taxes without asking your consent first. But since the Colorado Supreme Court created a loophole in TABOR the size of a Mack truck, they can raise taxes without voter approval just by calling the tax a “fee.”
Prop 117 simply requires voter approval for any really big state tax increases that are labeled “fees.” That’s it.
If the ballot title read, “Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes requiring voter approval for any new state fee over $100 million?” it would sail to victory.
But instead the title board wrote a word-collage, written in legalese too long for me to cut-and-paste it here, but it includes phrases like “next even-year election… newly created or qualified state enterprise… Article X, Section 20… projected or actual combined revenue… enterprises created within the last five years that serve primarily the same purpose… qualification of the new enterprise”
So, basically Prop 117 will fail. But if the proponents were allowed to write their own ballot language, it would certainly pass.
Here’s hypocrisy. When state legislators, not average citizens like you and me, put something on the ballot, they CAN write their own ballot titles. It allows them to advertise and even lie on the ballot.
Last year’s Prop CC raised tax revenue, so of course legislators wrote the first three words of their ballot title, “Without Raising taxes…” It then went on to say how it would help fund our most beloved needs like education, roads, rainbows and unicorns, when in fact the legislature could spend their tax increase however they see fit.
This year’s Amendment B, also written by legislators, starts with a similar fib, “Without raising property tax rates…” Clever, because it increases property taxes by changing property assessments to which your tax rates are applied. Bottom line, you’ll be paying more in property taxes.
The Amendment B language then goes on to advertise it secures funding for the warm-and-fuzzies like hospitals, education and unicorns.
Article 5 of our Colorado State Constitution clearly gives the same power of the legislature to we the people through our initiative and referendum process. So why do we, the rabble, have to live by a different set of rules?
If citizens can’t write their own ballot titles, then legislators shouldn’t be able to either.
Send them to the Title Board too!
Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.