DENVER — Nearly $600,000 in out-of-state dark money has thus far poured into an effort to pass a Denver ballot initiative that would make the city a focal point for the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath for years to come.
The idea for Initiative 300, was developed, written and funded entirely by the Delaware-based group, Guarding Against Pandemics. If passed by voters in November, the measure would hike the current Denver marijuana sales tax from 5.5 percent to 7 percent, with the estimated $7 million per year in new revenue going to pandemic research at the University of Colorado Denver’s CityCenter. According to the university website, CityCenter “matches faculty experts and university resources with civic and business leaders interested in exploring innovative solutions to some of the toughest issues facing our community.”
Guarding Against Pandemics, is a 501(c)(4) non-profit, which is not required to disclose its donors and its connection to the University of Colorado Denver, is unknown. According to the ballot language the university will be “required to equitably allocate the funds” so that 75 percent of the funds are limited to three research categories: personal protective equipment, disinfection and sterilization technology, and design features of physical spaces. Twenty-five percent will research public policy and planning.
Eight percent of the revenue generated ($560,000 per year) can be spent on administrative expenses. The measure also asks voters to remove all revenue restrictions under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). So, although the university will be required to submit a report once per year outlining to the city auditor how the funds were spent, the initiative never sunsets, and there is no guarantee what would happen to the money if collections outpaced expenditures.
According to campaign finance reports filed with the Denver City Clerk’s office, the group has made more than $250,000 in monetary donations to Denver Pandemic Fund, the issue committee backing Initiative 300, and another nearly $300,000 worth of in-kind donations such as legal and consulting services, polling and signature gathering.
The group has paid out nearly $200,000 in expenditures, with nearly half to out-of-state organizations. Gabriel Claeson, a Denver-based campaign consultant has received $40,000 for his work, and Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach, a signature gathering firm known to work mostly with Democrats and progressive issues has received just more than $100,000 for its work to get the initiative on the ballot.
“This is the first time, I’m aware of that an out of state group is going to Coloradans and proposing something like this type of mechanism for funding research,” said Denver resident Joshua Sharf, who is also a frequent opinion columnist for Complete Colorado and a former vice-chair of the Denver County Republican Party. “Why don’t they do this in Delaware? Probably because there is no referendum process, so they go and find some place they can do this. If it works, we are going to see them do this in a lot of western states where there is a public mechanism for getting state with referendum processes to fund national research.”
Sharf was referring to the ability of the people to place items on the ballot versus requiring the state legislature to do so. In fact, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, Delaware does not allow initiatives or referendums at the state or local level.
Sharf said it’s likely they chose Denver because it offered the most amount of revenue to gain with the least likely amount of resistance from voters and the least costly path to passage. A statewide initiative would have cost several times what they have paid to date to get it on the Denver ballot.
According to the group’s website, its goal is to continue a $30 billion plan by President Joe Biden that they fear will be cut by Congress.
“These cuts are unthinkable,” the website says. “Numerous experts have stated, $30 billion is necessary to support critical investments like faster detection of new viruses, more effective treatments, domestic supply chains for PPE, and faster development of new vaccines.”
Sharf called it a “boondoggle.”
“This is not a core function of city government,” he said. “There is plenty of federal money to do this. They spin up some local effort for a government grant, granting money to an agency that has no experience giving out money for medical research.”
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