(You can listen to this column, read by the author, here)
This is the story of how deviously written the ballot language for the tax increase Proposition HH is, and how normally good public technocrats are too terrified to shine a light on it.
Colorado has a citizen’s initiative process, meaning people like you and I can bring forward ballot questions to get around lawmakers at the Capitol to change state laws. I’ve done this several times, including twice lowering the state income tax.
When I bring an initiative forward, I don’t get to write the summary of it you see on your ballot, the ballot question. Instead, a governmental board of three people, called the Title Board, read my initiative and then create the “ballot title.”
But when the legislature refers a question to the ballot, they get to write its ballot title and don’t have to go through the board process. Meaning they get to lie and omit to tempt you to vote for what they want.
On Prop HH they start by saying, “Shall the state reduce property taxes,” (you had me at hello) and don’t even mention it will rob you of your tax refunds, causing the largest tax increase in Colorado history.
So, I went on a quest to find out what a fairer ballot title for HH would be if the self-serving legislature had to play by the same rules.
I took the language of Senate Bill 303, which created HH, and submitted it as a citizen’s initiative, meaning the Title Board would write a ballot title for it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the election.
The Title Board started working on its title for HH, then said it was wildly complex and confusing, perhaps so confusing it might not be able to set a title for it at all!
Wait a darn second! From “reduce property taxes,” to “changes in property taxes.” That’s a world of difference. It modifies the whole theme of HH, doesn’t it?
At this point, panic set in. You see, all three of the board members are appointed by Democrats, and it might be very uncomfortable for their bosses if they put out a truthful ballot title.
They needed to figure out how to save face and get out of this bad situation.
And then something I have never seen in my 25 years of being in front of this board happened. It called an emergency executive session to discuss how not to set a title.
When it reconvened, it claimed my copy of HH, like SB-303, referred to statute that doesn’t exist yet. It then rejected the whole initiative. Convenient.
But let me present to you where they left it. Here’s what the title board was working on as its ballot title for Prop HH before it cut and ran:
“Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning changes in property taxes, and in connection therewith, creating a property tax limit for certain local governments limited to no more than inflation and allowing the local governments to impose a mill limit to exceed that limit under circumstances; temporarily reducing the evaluation for assessment of certain residential and nonresidential property; creating new subclasses of property; requiring state surplus revenue that the state is authorized to retain and spend to be used to reimburse certain local governments for lost property tax revenue and spend to be used to reimburse certain local governments for lost property tax revenue to be deposited in the state education fund to backfill the reduction in school district property tax revenue; transferring general fund money to the state public school fund and to a cash fund to also be used for the reimbursements; and making an appropriation?”
Contrast that with what is on your ballot, written by the legislature:
“Shall the state reduce property taxes for homes and businesses, including expanding property tax relief for seniors, and backfill counties, water districts, fire districts ambulance and hospital districts, and other local governments and fund school districts by using a portion of state surplus up to the Proposition HH cap as defined in this measure?”
I’ll leave it to you to decide which ballot title has a chance of winning.
Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.