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Voters decided 2016 ballot measures, but big money weighed in 

Follow the money

click to enlarge Big money led to big victories for tobacco and oil/gas. - JONATHAN WEISS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock.com
  • Big money led to big victories for tobacco and oil/gas.

Big Tobacco and Big Oil were the biggest players in Colorado's ballot measures in 2016, writing checks for more than $36 million to influence your vote.

And influence it they did. Big Tobacco defeated a statewide tobacco tax increase, the oil and gas industry successfully kept ballot initiatives that would have limited fracking off the ballot, and a constitutional measure backed by Big Oil, to make it harder for average Coloradans to amend the constitution, passed by a wide margin.

Campaign finance reports for 2016 have now been finalized. Seventeen committees raised money for initiatives in 2016, spending more than $55 million to influence your vote on most of this year's nine measures.

Despite the millions poured into these races, the committees didn't set spending records. The record for spending on a single measure still belongs to a racetrack measure in 2014 that generated $38.9 million in combined spending from both sides. Nor was it a record year for the total number of statewide ballot measures, although from all of the commercials it might have felt like it. That record belongs to 2008, when voters were asked to consider a staggering 14 constitutional amendments.

Here's some of winners this year:

Big Tobacco

Altria, which owns Philip Morris, was the single biggest contributor to issue committees in 2016, putting more than $18 million into successful efforts to defeat Amendment 72, which would have increased tobacco taxes. It lost by a little more than 6 percent.

What would the ballot measure have done?

Amendment 72 would have raised cigarette taxes from 84 cents per pack to $2.59 per pack, generating an estimated $315 million a year for a variety of health programs.

Who was on the other side?

The Campaign for a Healthy Colorado — it's officially registered with the Secretary of State as "The Campaign for a Healthy Colorado 2016" — raised $2,441,995 to back Amendment 72. The American Heart Association was the campaign's biggest donor, at $300,465, followed by University of Colorado Health at $250,000 and its faculty practice, University Physicians, also at $250,000. Children's Hospital put in $200,000.

Big Oil

Under the public face of a committee called Protecting Colorado's Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, or Protect Colorado for short, oil companies gave millions of dollars to discourage voters from signing two anti-fracking petitions.

Once those initiatives were dead, oil companies turned to backing Raise the Bar, also known as Amendment 71. Raise the Bar took in $5,603,620 from a variety of donors, but none bigger than Protect Colorado, which gave $2.895 million.

The oil companies were pumping money into Protect Colorado well before this election cycle; the committee also worked on opposition to a handful of proposed ballot measures against fracking in 2014. Protect Colorado has raised $30,224,329 since its formation in 2014. Over the life of the committee, Anadarko Petroleum has been the biggest donor ($10,827,735), followed by Noble Energy ($9,742,735).

What will the ballot measure do?

Raise the Bar, which received 55.69 percent of the vote, changes the approval requirements for constitutional ballot measures. Petition collectors must now gather signatures from 2 percent of registered voters from all 35 state senate districts, and once on the ballot, a constitutional amendment must receive at least 55 percent of the vote, rather than the simple majority.

Who was on the other side?

Whether it was environmental groups fighting for the anti-fracking measures or libertarians and government accountability groups teaming up against Amendment 71, their fundraising efforts paled in comparison to what Big Oil could put into its chief committee.

Three groups raised a total of $1,895,964 to fight against Raise the Bar, almost all of it through the Colorado League of Responsible Voters. The National Education Association was the League's biggest donor in 2016 ($620,000), followed by Conservation Colorado ($265,008).

The biggest group on the 2016 anti-fracking measures, Yes for Health and Safety Over Fracking, raised a total of $707,274, with $234,176 from the Sierra Club and $50,000 each from Friends of the Earth and Boulder philanthropist Jay Christopher Hormel.

The two measures would have allowed local governments more control over fracking, and would have established a 2,500-foot setback from fracking sites.

Compassion and Choices

The newest big player in Colorado may just be this Denver-based national nonprofit, which backed the effort to put medical aid-in-dying onto the ballot via Proposition 106, and funded the campaign to pass it.

But this is also a "gray money" group that doesn't disclose its donors except in annual reports that show its total funding, not just for ballot measures. So we will never know just who contributed the $5,748,179 to Compassion's issue committee, Yes on End of Life. The measure passed with 64.87 percent of the vote.

What will the ballot measure do?

The statutory measure allows mentally competent adults with less than six months to live to receive a prescription for life-ending drugs, which they must self-administer should they choose to use them. Two doctors must agree on a terminal diagnosis and prognosis.

Who was on the other side?

Two groups raised a total of $2.9 million to fight the Aid in Dying measure: Coloradans Against Assisted Suicide and No Assisted Suicide Colorado.

The Catholic Church, through Catholic archdioceses and affiliated groups from all over the nation, was the biggest donor to No On Assisted Suicide, contributing more than $2.4 million.

Disability groups funded Coloradans Against Assisted Suicide, with the largest donations coming from the New Jersey-based Patient's Rights Action Fund, which contributed $125,000 of the committee's total $140,020.

Minimum wage, A-70

Voters turned out in force to support an increase in the state's minimum wage. Amendment 70 won with 55.36 percent of the vote.

What will the amendment do?

Colorado's minimum wage is currently $8.31 per hour. Amendment 70 will increase it to $9.30 per hour on Jan. 1, 2017 and by 90 cents per hour annually until it reaches $12 per hour on Jan. 1, 2020.

The measure was backed by Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, which put $5,409,354 toward the effort. Despite the committee's name, its biggest funders were also out-of-state groups, such as the Center for Popular Democracy of Brooklyn, with $1.05 million; the Fairness Project of Palo Alto, California, with $911,132 and the Civic Participation Action Fund of New York, with $700,000.

Who was on the other side?

Keep Colorado Working raised $1,733,419 to fight Amendment 70. Its biggest donors were gray money groups with unknown funders, such as the Workforce Fairness Institute of Alexandria, Virginia, which gave $650,000, and Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution, which provided $125,000.

Restaurant groups were also large donors.

Caucus frustrates voters

A pair of ballot measures aimed at changing the primary system succeeded with little opposition, a nod to the angst many voters had with this year's caucuses.

Proposition 107 got 64.09 percent of the vote and Proposition 108 received 53.27 percent of the vote.

What will they do?

Proposition 107 re-establishes Colorado's presidential primary in 2020. The primary was eliminated in favor of a caucus system in 2002. Proposition 108 allows unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries for major parties. Minor parties can exclude unaffiliated voters.

Let Colorado Vote raised $5,240,041 to back the two measures. There was no funded opposition.

The biggest funder for the Let Colorado Vote effort was Davita CEO Kent Thiry, who is now among the names on the Republican side in the race for governor in 2018. Thiry kicked in $2.353 million.

A longer version of this story first appeared on the Colorado Independent.

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