Last week, we shared our endorsements for the 2018 statewide Colorado Ballot Measures. But for most Colorado voters, those won’t be the only measures they decide. While we don’t have the time to write a ballot measure guide for every city or county, we did want to let everyone know our thoughts on the City and County of Denver’s ballot measures. To that end, see our endorsements below.
Before we get into the actual ballot measures, many of which are tax increases, we wanted to express our displeasure with this entire process. Because of a Constitutional Amendment called, ironically, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (“TABOR”), every tax increase in Colorado must be approved by the entire electorate, i.e., all of the voters). Compare this to almost every other state and local government in the US, where elected officials can pass necessary tax increases on their own. If voters do not like the tax increases, they can simply vote the officials out in the next election. This year we will be voting on many sales tax increases in Denver. The proposals will pay for parks, mental health, college scholarships, and nutrition programs. We support them all. But the entire process—putting each tax increase to an electorate-wide vote—stinks.
For example, say you are okay with a small sales tax increase to pay for some helpful service that helps our community. Should that money go to parks? Or mental health programs? Or healthy foods? If 100% of voters support a small sales tax increase to pay for these services, but only 33% of voters support each specific program, all of them will fail if we are asked to vote on them separately. We elect people to our legislatures or our city councils to make those choices for us when they have the necessary information to understand the entire picture. Are parks more important than healthy food? Are mental health programs more important than both? What about college scholarships? Tough to say. Our legislatures and city councils study the issue and get input from the community to decide. Ordinary voters are likely the least informed and least capable of making those tough choices. But individual voters DO have powerful choices to make regarding who gets to make those choices. And if voters don’t like the choices that the legislature makes, they have a remedy at the ballot box. By asking for a vote on each specific increase for each specific purpose, we run the risk of failing to generate revenue that we need for important programs.
Moreover, all of the tax increases on the ballot in Denver are sales tax increases. As we mentioned in our State Ballot Initiative Blog, sales taxes are regressive and require the poor to pay more than their fair share. We understand political reality, but we really wish these tax increases would come in the form of an income tax where rich people and big business would cover the vast majority of the cost. For reference, Denver’s sales tax is currently 3.65%. When added to the State sales tax, you pay 7.65% on most goods and services here. If all of the tax increases on the Denver ballot pass (not counting the State measures), the new sales tax would be 8.31%. Put differently, if all of these taxes pass you can expect to pay an extra 66 cents for every $100 you spend. That might not be much for middle class or wealthy people, but for someone making $10 an hour, every cent hurts.
With that, here are our positions on the ballot measures for the City and County of Denver.
Measure 2A – Vote YES! Measure 2A would increase the sales tax by .25 percent, or about 25 cents for every $100 spent, with all of the money going towards parks and recreation. It would raise roughly $46 million in 2019 alone. We support this initiative because we believe Denver lags behind other major cities in park funding. For example, Denver spends about $114 per person per year on parks. New York City spends $175 per person, Raleigh spends $200 per person, and Seattle spends a whopping $250 per person. If this passes, Denver’s park budget will increase by 63%. We are cognizant of the arguments against this measure, mainly from affordable housing advocates who say we need to spend way more money on housing before we spend more money on parks. We get that argument. But we don’t believe this is a zero-sum game. If a tax increase is on the ballot to increase affordable housing, we will support it in a heartbeat. But for now, this is the measure that’s on the ballot. We love parks and are proud to support this measure.
Measure 2B – We are remaining neutral on Measure 2B. Measure 2B deals with signature collection for City of Denver ballot initiatives. Currently, the amount of signatures a group needs to collect to get a measure on the ballot is set by a percentage of people who voted in the last Mayoral election. As you can imagine, this means the number swings widely from year to year. If the Mayor’s race is contested, more people will vote, and the next election will require more signatures. If it is not contested, the reverse is true. 2B would change the methodology to be a percentage of registered voters. This would, in theory, stabilize the number of signatures needed. We are neutral because in some years MORE signatures would be required. For example, under the current system 5,000 signatures would be needed for 2019 ballot measures, but if this passes it would be 8,000 signatures. The more signatures required, the more money has to be spent, which tends to favor big businesses and special interests. But in other years the number might actually be lower than before. Ultimately, we don’t feel strongly enough either way to take a position on this measure.
Measure 2C – Vote YES! Measure 2C has to do with hiring cops, specifically “lateral hires.” Lateral hires are cops that already have experience that are hired from other jurisdictions rather than true rookies. The issue is that under the current law, many of these lateral transfers must be paid like they are rookies while they undergo additional training. If you are a cop with 10 years’ experience, you likely aren’t going to move to Denver if you get paid like a first year cop. This change would allow the Chief of Police to classify how many years’ experience a new hire has, and then to pay him or her accordingly. That makes sense. More experienced police officers benefit the City, and this measure would change nothing about the vetting process to ensure only the most qualified individuals are hired. Ultimately, we believe this measure will help the City recruit good cops.
Measure 2D – Vote YES! This is a common sense change involving the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Currently, the Director of Elections, a job inside the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, is a political appointment. This change would make the job a regular employee of the City. It would also allow the Clerk and Recorder two additional political appointments. These changes make sense. The Director of Elections shouldn’t change often and shouldn’t be subject to the political winds. Hiring someone on a permanent basis to run our elections is a change we can get behind.
Measure 2E – Vote YES! This is our favorite initiative on the ballot in 2018. Called the Democracy for the People Initiative, this initiative would radically change elections in Denver. First, it would create public financing for candidates, something we have long supported. The program would match donations from Denver residents at a 9 to 1 ratio, up to $50 per person. So if someone donated $50 to your campaign, the City would pitch in $450 for a total of $500. This makes it easier to raise money and focus on small donors rather than licking the boots of Big Development, as is often the case in Denver elections. The measure would also drastically reduce the amount of money individuals could give to those candidates. It would also have a flat ban on corporations, LLCs, unions, and other special interests donating directly to candidates. Publicly funded elections is the best way to get money out of politics, and this is measure is a great step toward that goal.
Initiative 300 – Vote YES! Initiative 300 increases the sales tax by 0.08%, or about 8 cents per $100 spent. The money would pay for scholarships to help send Denver youth to college. The scholarships would be administered by non-profits, and anyone under the age of 25 who has lived in Denver for three or more years would be eligible. Students could use the money to attend any non-profit or public regionally accredited college or university. Students would have to be in good standing to be eligible. Some opponents have argued that City government has no role in funding college education. That argument is not persuasive. The cost of college continues to rise, and as it does, it prices out the poor and even the middle class. A more educated city benefits everyone. Could this be best fixed on a national or even a state level? Sure. But if we wait for Congress to fix this problem, it will never get fixed. This is a small step forward. Hopefully, one day we will have tuition or debt-free college nationwide. But until that happens, we are all in on helping Denver youth get an education and contribute to our City.
Initiative 301 – Vote YES! Initiative 301 increases the sales tax by 0.25%, or about 25 cents per $100 spent. The money would be used for suicide prevention; mental health services; opioid and substance abuse services; and affordable housing to reduce homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization. We are all in on this measure and believe it is the most important of all of the Denver tax increase measures. Mental health services are vital and currently ours are woefully underfunded. Paying for quality mental health care is not only morally right, but it makes financial sense. It is WAY more expensive to pay for someone to sit in jail or to treat them in an institution after they have had a major break from reality than it is to treat them early. Providing better mental health services isn’t a magic bullet, but we believe it will have a positive impact on things like crime and homelessness. This measure is way overdue. Special shout out to Rep. Leslie Herod for championing this measure.
Initiative 302 – Vote YES! This is the final tax increase on the Denver ballot. It would increase the sales tax by 0.08%, or roughly 8 cents per $100 spent. Called the “Healthy Food for Denver’s Kids Initiative,” the money would go to groups whose “primary purpose is to provide healthy meals and healthy snacks” for Denver kids. We don’t know exactly who will get the money yet as groups would need to apply each year, but it will pay for things like cooking, gardening, and nutrition programs. Schools, non-profits, and public programs would be eligible for the funding. The reality is too many kids in Denver go hungry some days. For those who do eat, many eat “cheap” junk food. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, you likely have many grocery stores to choose from and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. If you don’t, you probably don’t. This won’t fix some of the fundamental problems of “food deserts,” but it is a big step in the right direction.
Ballot Issue 7G – Vote YES! This ballot issue will be voted on by the entire metro area, not just Denver. That is why it looks a little different than the others. The measure deals with the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District. The flood control district used to collect $1 for every $1,000 dollars in assessed value in property taxes. But, because of TABOR, it now only collects 56 cents. This measure would undue those cuts. If you live in a $400,000 house this would only cost you an extra $7.88 each year. If you don’t own property, this would cost you nothing. And the district is important! Its primary responsibility is to do watershed planning and to run flood-mapping studies. There are many areas in the metro area that could use some updates or redesign to protect against floods. For essentially no cost to most Denver voters, we can increase our readiness for the next major flood.