Getting more people involved in elections, reforming the initiative process and finding ways to solve the state’s fiscal conundrum are the big issues a statewide bipartisan group has set out to solve.
And if the issues weren’t complicated enough, they’ve set an ambitious timeline: to have all three solutions on the ballot by November 2016.
Led by political heavy-hitters from both parties, Building a Better Colorado is hosting 40 meetings around the state, gauging public opinion on a variety of solutions and soliciting inventive ideas on the three topics. They’ll send out surveys this fall to designated stakeholders, and get feedback on a website (betterco.org), now under construction.
The goal is to take Colorado in a new direction, because “we know we can do better,” said Reeves Brown, a former Hickenlooper staffer who is moderating the events across the state.
Colorado has one of the largest blocs of unaffiliated voters — at 36 percent of voters. Being unaffiliated, they are locked out of the state’s primary system.
One suggestion to solve the problem: Open the primaries to unaffiliated voters.
That idea was popular at the local gathering; people felt opening the primaries might prevent candidates from catering to fringe elements in both parties.
Another idea: Colorado doesn’t participate in the presidential primary system, but the group said the state should change that. Mayor John Suthers agreed.
“If people realized the economic boom that comes from these presidential primaries, they’d change their mind about having one,” Suthers said.
“In a purple state like Colorado, candidates would flock here. It would be great for the state.”
State legislators might take up the idea in the next session, with the goal of having a presidential primary in 2016.
Colorado is one of a handful of states that allow residents to gather signatures to put state constitutional amendments on the ballot. The result is conflicting fiscal requirements and a mish-mash of other special-interest ideas written into the state’s constitution.
The reformers’ idea — increase the number of signatures needed and make sure they come from across the state.
“Right now, someone could stand in a parking lot in Denver and get signatures for a ballot initiative that only affects people on the Western Slope, and the people it affects don’t have any signatures on the ballot,” Reeves said.
The Gallagher Amendment changed the state’s property tax laws; the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires tax refunds once certain spending limits are hit; Amendment 23 requires kindergarten-12th grade spending increases every year.
All three bind the Legislature’s hands in setting the state’s fiscal priorities. Studies show by 2024 the state will have money for only corrections, Medicaid and K-12 education.
Clearly, that’s unsustainable.
The most popular option for the Springs crowd: Take the hospital provider fee away from TABOR spending limits. The fee is a per-bed charge every hospital pays the state for an insurance plan for high-risk, low-income Coloradans. Removing the $550 million from TABOR limits will keep the state from paying refunds of $16 to $50 per person this year.
The General Assembly could make the change in 2016, leaving more money for other priorities. It makes sense, because it isn’t tax revenue — it’s a fee.
“I’ve been all over, and this is what we’re hearing, that it’s time to adjust TABOR.”
– Reeves Brown
Another popular idea: Keep TABOR’s requirement that voters approve any tax increase, but remove the spending caps. Other suggestions were more risky: Get rid of TABOR completely or remove the rigid formulas that govern the fiscal amendments: 23, Gallagher and TABOR. The laws would remain, but would be more flexible to allow spending on transportation, higher education and a variety of other state spending priorities.
Yet another idea involved changing TABOR revenue cap factors from growth in the state and the Consumer Price Index to the state’s gross domestic product or personal income increases.
The mood here: Do something and do it soon. But with a note of caution.
“The people in this room don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of everyone in Colorado,” said County Commissioner Dennis Hisey. “We have to be careful to make sure everyone is on board.”
But Reeves said the conclusion that TABOR is hamstringing state government is taking hold across the state.
“I’ve been all over, and we’re hearing that it’s time to adjust TABOR,” he said.
“We don’t want to get rid of it completely, but to adjust it to allow more flexibility.”