Summit County leaders discuss state issues at Building a Better Colorado Summit
The Building a Better Colorado Coalition made a stop in Summit County on Monday. The nonpartisan coalition, created by former University of Colorado professor Dan Ritchie, has hosted several summits this fall to poll leaders on which issues strike a nerve, and what solutions might be possible.
“The level of conversation, the seriousness and purpose people bring to it, is really refreshing,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Building a Better Colorado. “We’re taking what we learn, fine-tuning things, conducting focus groups and polling.”
The group formed over the summer, narrowing down discussion topics to three overarching points: Colorado’s election process, initiative process and fiscal policy.
“We’re really looking for issues that could only be solved by voters,” Hubbard said.
Project coordinator Reeves Brown, former Department of Labor Affairs director, addressed specific issues within each category. The group, which consisted of Summit County leaders and longtime locals, did not always come to a consensus, but was able to form conclusions about a few policy points. The group of 20 engaged in hours of discussion about the issues before they were surveyed, entering anonymous responses ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” using remote controls.
“Anyone involved in this project probably has different ideas about what the specific solutions are in these three policy areas,” Brown said. “They are all in agreement that we can do better, and that is what has brought us together — a shared concern about those issues and a shared desire to engage in conversation.”
PINNING DOWN POLICY
Brown kicked off the conversation with citizen-initiated amendments, to both state law and Colorado’s constitution. While statutory amendments can be changed by legislators, a proposed constitutional amendment requires a second citizen vote to be altered.
“We are not opposed to the initiative process, but we are concerned about the frequency of the initiative process,” Brown said. “Only California and Oregon have more citizen initiatives than Colorado.”
Colorado has the fourth most easily amended state constitution in the nation, with more than 150 amendments to date, according to the National Ballot Referendum Institute. When polled, the group of 20 Summit County citizens showed support for a higher signature threshold for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.
For example, when asked if they would support having a higher signature threshold for constitutional amendments than for amendments to state law, 95 percent responded in support. To address potential conflicts in citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, 83 percent of the Summit County representatives supported a 60-day review period.
With the rise of independent voters across the state, more than one million Colorado voters cannot participate in the primary process, unless they choose to affiliate. Brown said the unaffiliated are the largest-growing group of voters in Colorado, making up 37 percent of the state’s electorate, and 57 percent of voters who registered in 2014.
Despite these points, Summit County civic leaders at the event showed relatively low interest in altering current primary policy, with 67 percent of the group voting against change.
However, the group showed a marked interest in restoring the state’s presidential primary, after the state voted in 2003 to remove the primary due to budget constraints. 84 percent of the group polled in support of the state hosting a presidential primary concurrently with the state primary, to reduce costs.
One final point of contention was the question of whether or not to reduce the eight-year term limit for state legislators.
“My thought when I voted for it was that we wouldn’t have the tyranny of untouchable incumbents,” Breckenridge Mayor John Warner said of the term limits. “I’ve seen our state legislature, I think, perform worse since then. There’s no time to create relationships.”
The group of local leaders overall showed little support for reducing term limits. However, they proposed extending individual House terms from two years to four years, to allow representatives more time.
“When we find people who are good, they just get trained and then they leave,” Early Childhood Options executive director Lucinda Burns said. “Why couldn’t they just stay doing what they started to learn?”
The suggestion was polled with the support of 89 percent of the room.
Colorado tax law was the final issue to come to the table, with extended discussion about the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the attached financial algorithms. Brown discussed issues with TABOR’s revenue limit, as well as Amendment 23, which earmarks a percentage of state revenue for K-12 education, leaving less for other funds.
The amendment is in conflict with the Gallagher Amendment, which limits the state’s ability to raise residential property taxes and placing a greater burden on commercial property.
“It froze the ratio between commercial and residential in 1982,” Brown said. “Since then, residential has outpaced commercial. … It’s worse for the school districts because property taxes are a primary source of funds for them.”
However, the group of Summit County civic leaders decided not to vote on Gallagher without first addressing TABOR.
“I don’t think we have enough understanding right now to vote on Gallagher,” Summit County manager Gary Martinez noted.
“We pulled our subject matter experts together on this issue. Unless you get rid of parts of TABOR, getting rid of Gallagher doesn’t do anything,” Building a Better Colorado community engagement leader Mike Hughes said. He added that according to the experts, “The bigger fiscal fish to fry is TABOR.”
Brown brought up Colorado’s Hospital Provider Fee, which was a large success in helping provide insurance coverage, but also contributes to the TABOR limit. 72 percent of the group said they would support exempting the Hospital Provider Fee from the revenue limit. In addition, 73 percent supported keeping TABOR but changing how the revenue limit is calculated. 66 percent said they would agree to repealing TABOR entirely, and 88 percent supported repealing TABOR with the exception that citizens can still vote on new taxes.
“This state has evolved, I think. There are way more people here,” Warner said. “I don’t think TABOR or Gallagher would pass today. It’s a different state.”
While the statistics are telling, not all of Monday’s suggestions will become solutions. Building a Better Colorado will continue polling leaders across the state before narrowing the issues down to a few ballot initiatives for next year’s session.
“We’re not interested in engaging in conversations over the next few weeks just for the sake of conversation. We are here to make a difference and we are committed to going forward,” Brown said. “We don’t know what the answer is, but we can do better as a state.”
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