It is one crazy, crowded ballot this November. To help you wade through it, the Independent this week presents our endorsements for all statewide initiatives. Over the next couple weeks, you'll find similar treatment of selected local initiatives and races for political office. Also, for easy reference, you can refer to the boxes summing up our picks at the end of each package. Thanks for reading, and for being involved in a crucial election for Colorado.
Amendment 38: Expanding petitioners' rights
Amendment 38 would make it much easier for citizens or special interest groups to use the petition process to propose and challenge laws at all levels of state and local government.
Legislative institutions are, by their very nature, public. Before laws are enacted, there almost always are several public hearings, with numerous opportunities for elected officials, academics, government representatives, civil groups, regular citizens and newspapers and other media to weigh in.
The initiative process eliminates the need for such vigorous open debate and compromise. Instead, one interest group usually writes the measure to suit just its needs. And voters are presented with only take-it-or-leave-it options, with no ability to add amendments or seek clarifications.
Governing via citizen-initiated petitions must always be a last resort. Amendment 38 makes it too easy to place measures on state and local ballots. If this measure passes, gambling, cigarette, sports, highway, water, mass transit, religious, secular, library, military, anti-war, environmental, union, educational and literally hundreds of other civic and corporate groups will almost certainly launch campaigns to alter state, county, city, school board, water district and regional laws.
The more one examines this seemingly benign and populist-sounding amendment to Colorado's constitution, the more sinister it becomes. To cite just one example, this measure's fine print mandates penalties of $3,000 or more against any and all elected officials or government employees who make any public statement regarding any ballot measure. Thus if a special interest crafts a devilishly crafty ballot measure, it would be illegal for those with significant expertise about how the proposal would impact citizens our taxpayer-funded public servants to ever comment on the potential ramifications of the proposal.
This amendment goes way too far.
Amendment 39: A mandatory school spending measure
Two wealthy out-of-state activists Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, and Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform are paying to place initiatives such as Amendment 39 on state ballots around the nation. The Colorado version of this initiative would mandate that every individual school district, regardless of circumstances, spend at least 65 percent of its budget on activities and materials directly related to classroom instruction.
Among those expenses not considered "related to classroom instruction": transportation, food and food service workers, custodial and building maintenance; salaries for school nurses, college counselors and all administrators, from principals to secretaries.
Only 12 Colorado school districts today would comply with this arbitrarily set 65 percent threshold. So more than 90 percent of our locally elected school boards would be forced to alter often radically their budgeting processes to meet state mandates.
All of Colorado's 178 school districts would need to submit their annual budget to state bureaucrats, adding wasteful red tape and bureaucracy. In addition to increasing state control of our local schools, this amendment would create huge incentives for school administrators to seek creative solutions to their budgeting nightmares by renaming jobs and activities to meet state mandates. Lawsuits would most certainly proliferate.
Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, a past Cheyenne Mountain School Board member, understands that "School district boards are very capable of setting their own community priorities. [Amendment 39] would hamper local control."
Current House Education Chair Mike Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, concurs: "Amendment 39 is filled with red tape and needless bureaucracy for teachers and school districts. Teachers need to spend their time instructing kids, not filling out paperwork."
Amendment 40: Establishing judicial term limits
This measure would alter Colorado's constitution to limit the length of service of Colorado's seven Supreme Court and 19 appellate court justices to a maximum of 10 years. If this measure passes, five of the current seven Supreme Court judges and seven of the 19 Court of Appeals justices would be forced from the bench in January 2009. This would give the next governor the ability to appoint nearly half our state's most senior justices all at once.
If enacted, this measure would push off the bench many of Colorado's most knowledgeable and independent judges. Furthermore, Amendment 40 would enable all future two-term governors to appoint a majority of all Supreme Court and Court of Appeals justices, enabling one person to stack the deck with judges who share his or her political views. This measure will politicize our judicial system, to our great detriment.
Colorado's constitution already mandates forced retirement for justices when they reach 72 years of age. Since most Supreme Court justices are appointed in their fifties or sixties, we're already assured that our judicial system will not become stagnant. There is no need for a measure as extreme as Amendment 40.
Amendment 41: Banning lobbyists' gifts
A round of golf at The Broadmoor. A trip to Israel. Thousands of dollars in cash. These are but a few of the gifts that several El Paso County state legislators accepted from lobbyists in 2005.
They weren't alone. Taking gifts is the rule, not the exception, at our Capitol. Lawmakers reported receiving more than $300,000 in trips, meals and other perks. And that's not including $1 million in donations of less than $50 which they didn't have to report, but which registered lobbyists identified on their expense reports.
This "ethics in government" measure would prevent officeholders and other public officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50 in a single year from anyone other than a relative or personal friend on a special occasion.
Of equal, or perhaps greater, importance: This initiative mandates a two-year wait before former officeholders can become lobbyists themselves. Right now, our legislators know that if they carry water for moneyed interests, they can garner a high-paying gig lobbying their former colleagues the day after they leave the Legislature.
Almost all opposition to this measure comes from lobbyists who seek the access that their gifts generate. Some civic-minded citizens, however, have raised two concerns about Amendment 41. One is that this amendment would prevent our elected representatives and civil servants, as well as their family members, from receiving legitimate scholarships from schools and colleges, as well as other benefits available to the general public. Our careful reading of this measure indicates such concerns are unfounded.
Another concern is that this amendment creates a five-member ethics commission to oversee enforcement of this measure, with individual members having subpoena power in order to investigate complaints and ethical abuses at the local and state levels. Since these commission members themselves are appointed by government officials, there is some potential for partisan abuse.
Weighing the threat of such abuse against the enormous civic benefits of eliminating our current system, it is clear that this measure's positives far outweigh any potential negatives.
Amendment 42: Increasing the minimum wage
For almost a decade, the federal minimum wage has remained frozen at $5.15 an hour or $10,700 a year, before taxes, for a full-time worker. And for those minimum-wage workers who work just 30 hours a week enabling their employers to avoid providing benefits take-home pay is just $8,000, or $155 a week, less taxes.
Amendment 42 would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 statewide, with an annual adjustment for inflation. People who rely on tips, such as waitresses, would see their base hourly rate go from $2.13 to $3.83.
The current minimum wage's buying power is at a 50-year low and keeps shrinking. One analysis found that 1969's minimum wage of $1.60 an hour would be worth about $8.88 per hour in today's dollars a full $2.03 less than what voters are being asked to support. Initiative supporters note that the U.S. Congress has given itself seven raises totaling about $30,000 in the nine years the minimum wage has remained stagnant.
This measure puts Colorado on the way to creating a more just economy, in step with states around the nation that also have raised their minimum wages. Moreover, since our state's minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation, voters would not have to revisit this issue every few years.
Amendment 43: One-man, one-woman marriage
This measure would amend our state's constitution to reiterate a law already enacted by the Colorado Legislature that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Lead proponents, especially Focus on the Family, argue that allowing committed same-sex couples to marry threatens heterosexual relationships. After studying what has happened when marriage and/or civil unions have been enacted in Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada and several European nations, we see no such threat.
The fundamentalists seek to enshrine a matrimonial model grounded in biblical gender roles: husband, wife and children, in order of descending authority. The Independent holds a less retro view of the institution's possibilities.
Amendment 44: Limited legalization for marijuana possession
This amendment is largely a feel-good measure. It would override state laws that criminalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years of age or older.
Even if Amendment 44 passes, it would still be illegal under state law:
For all individuals under 21 years of age to possess any amount of marijuana;
For anyone to possess more than one ounce of marijuana;
To grow or sell any amount of marijuana;
To display, use or consume marijuana;
To drive an automobile under the influence of marijuana.
Moreover, individuals who grow, transfer, possess, sell or consume marijuana violate numerous other federal, state and local laws. In addition, all home-rule cities and towns (representing about 90 percent of Colorado's population) have the ability to enact their own laws regarding marijuana. For example, here in Colorado Springs, a home-rule city, residents face harsher penalties than under state law. Even if this measure passes, anyone in Colorado Springs caught possessing or consuming less than 1 ounce of marijuana faces up to 90 days in jail and fines of up to $500.
So in reality, this amendment would not change much. Colorado's prosecutors who convicted 3,700 adults for possession of 1 ounce or less of cannabis under state laws last year would have numerous federal and local laws under which to prosecute even those whose only crime is having less than an ounce of marijuana.
But if enacted, it would send a strong, needed message that the citizens of Colorado are fed up with the ill-conceived "War on Drugs."
Alaska has already endorsed a similar measure, and Arizona will consider one this November. If enough states act, there could be enough collective pressure to catalyze a much-needed major overhaul of our nation's antiquated and harmful drug laws.
It is time to send a message.
Referendum E: Tax break for home-owning veterans
This is a narrow tax break that benefits one group of very deserving Colorado residents, 100 percent disabled veterans who own their own homes. But when one group benefits financially, other taxpayers must pay. We think this measure is too narrow, for it does nothing for disabled veterans who rent. Or for those who live in the homes of in-laws. Or for those who are less than 100 percent disabled.
Moreover, since veterans are in service to our nation as a whole, any outside responsibility to meet their financial needs rests squarely with the federal government. Once states start addressing what should remain a national concern, there will be precedent for Congress to start shirking what clearly is and what must remain a federal responsibility.
Referendum F: A recall petition fix
Referendum F would modify Colorado's constitution, allowing our state Legislature to establish deadlines for protesting petitions to recall elected state officials. A recall election lets voters remove and replace an elected official prior to the end of the official's term. Any state and local elected official in Colorado may be recalled. At a recall election, voters are asked if they want to recall the elected official, and to choose a candidate to replace the official if the recall election is successful.
Colorado's recall provisions need a fix, but Referendum F is not it. This referendum gives too much power to legislators and the governor, allowing them to alter deadlines to make recalls either more difficult or far easier to implement, depending upon their own preferences. Colorado's recall process should not depend on partisan political maneuvering. Instead, citizens should vote down this measure. And then our elected legislators should place before voters a measure that establishes fair, nonpartisan and uniform recall procedures.
Referendum G: Deleting obsolete constitutional provisions
Referendum G would remove references to laws that are totally obsolete from three sections of our state's constitution. It is an ongoing effort to update the constitution by deleting language that is clearly outdated.
Removing provisions diminishes our constitution's historic character, something we value. But we also believe that it is important to make laws and regulations easier to understand. Our state constitution is currently a huge, confusing document, far more complex than even the U.S. Constitution. Whatever can be done to make this vital document more understandable is a worthwhile effort.
Referendum H: Limiting tax breaks for businesses hiring undocumented workers
Just like individuals, businesses pay taxes based on the amount of income they earn. In determining the income tax owed, businesses can first deduct all legitimate expenses, including wages. Referendum H would not only require Colorado businesses to disclose the amount of compensation paid to undocumented immigrants, but also prevent such wages from being counted as legitimate business expenses.
By discouraging the hiring of undocumented immigrants, Referendum H reduces the financial advantage that a business gains when it pays lower wages to unauthorized workers.
But the reality is that Referendum H will likely have minimal impact, since it has a loophole a mile wide. This measure would only apply to corporations that knowingly pay $600 or more annually to an individual undocumented immigrant. The key word is here is knowingly. Moreover, those businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants would also have to self-report, and there is little incentive for businesses to do so.
This measure will accomplish little besides sending a message to Washington that the people of Colorado seek action on immigration reform.
Referendum I: Domestic partnership benefits
The Colorado Domestic Partnership Benefits and Responsibilities Act would amend state law to offer eligible, committed same-gender couples some additional rights and responsibilities, including the rights to visit one another in hospital; plan funeral services for each other; and provide access to family health and life insurance plans. Many of these rights are not now available, even through complicated and expensive legal documentation and proceedings. By holding these couples accountable for legal commitments made in raising children, incurring debt, and owning property, domestic partnerships benefit individuals, their families and the broader community.
There are several notable exclusions in this measure. For instance, adoption agencies with religious objections can decline to place children with same-gender parents. And domestic partners still will not be able to file joint state tax returns.
Referendum I is an important step forward in acknowledging all Colorado families, and a great opportunity for moderate to progressive Coloradans rather than a regressive, vocal minority to define the state's essential character.
Referendum J: Another 65 percent school solution
Just like the measure it was designed to combat, the ill-thought-out Amendment 39, Referendum J contains the same arbitrary 65 percent funding mandates for every school district in Colorado. But this measure expands the definition so that 65 percent of every school district's spending must be allocated to all "services that directly affect student achievement." Included in Referendum J's broader definition are all costs associated with principals, support staff (such as guidance counselors, nurses, bus drivers and food service workers) and support services provided at the school level.
Referendum J's criteria are so broad that the measure would impact just a handful of rural districts in the state. But it would mandate unnecessary and wasteful data and budget reporting requirements for all 178 school districts.
Referendum K: Suing the feds over immigration
This referendum would require that the state of Colorado sue the federal government, demanding that it enforce existing federal immigration law. The Colorado attorney general could either initiate a lawsuit or join other states to sue the federal government. Since numerous other states have already unsuccessfully sued the federal government over these very issues, enacting this measure would waste $190,000 in state funds every year, as well as valuable time the AG's office should be spending to actually accomplish something.
Outside the polls ...
Tuesday, Oct. 10, is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 7 general election.
Absentee ballots can be requested in person at:
Clerk & Recorder's office, 200 S. Cascade Ave.
Chapel Hills office, at the north side of the Chapel Hills Mall
Powers office, 5650 Industrial Place, at the southeast corner of Powers Boulevard and Airport Road
People can also request an absentee ballot by calling 575-VOTE (8683) or visiting car.elpasoco.com/election. All requests for absentee ballots must be received by Oct. 31. All absentee ballots must be returned to the election office either by mail or in person by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Early voting locations will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, from Oct. 23 to Nov. 3. In addition to the three offices listed above, people can also cast early votes at the following locations:
Monument Hill Church: 18725 Monument Hill Road
Fountain City Hall: 116 S. Main St.
Falcon Elementary School: 12050 Falcon Hwy.
Additional information about elections can be found on the Clerk & Recorder's Web site at car.elpasoco.com.
Amendment 38: Expanding petitioners' rights NO
Amendment 39: A mandatory school spending measure NO
Amendment 40: Establishing judicial term limits NO
Amendment 41: Banning lobbyists' gifts YES
Amendment 42: Increasing the minimum wage YES
Amendment 43: One-man, one-woman marriage NO
Amendment 44: Limited legalization for marijuana possession YES
Referendum E: Tax break for home-owning veterans NO
Referendum F: A recall petition fix NO
Referendum G: Deleting obsolete constitutional provisions YES
Referendum H: Limiting tax breaks for businesses hiring undocumented workers NO OPINION
Referendum I: Domestic partnership benefits YES
Referendum J: Another 65 percent school solution NO
Referendum K: Suing the feds over immigration NO