Bipartisan opposition to Kent Thiry’s election overhaul. Who won’t be on the property tax task force. Higher ed funding.

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  ALERT:   President Joe Biden will make his second trip to Colorado this year, attending a campaign fundraiser in the Denver area Tuesday and then visiting a wind turbine factory in Pueblo on Wednesday.

Details here.

A voter fills out a ballot inside Summit County’s South Branch Library on Nov. 8, 2022, in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

If there’s one thing that unites Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Shad Murib, Colorado GOP Chair Dave Williams and Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, it’s their shared skepticism of the election system overhaul being proposed by Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita.

Each dislikes the proposal, which would move Colorado to an open primary system and adopt ranked-choice voting in general elections, for different reasons. Thiry also wants to do away with Colorado’s caucus and assembly process and stop vacancy committees from filling legislative openings. The changes would be made through a 2024 ballot measure — or measures — amending the state constitution and take effect in 2026.

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Boebert said on social media that “ranked-choice voting is a scheme launched by well-moneyed interests who are only concerned with their own power and not giving Coloradans a choice at the ballot box.”

“Self-serving rich liberals shouldn’t be able to buy their way onto a ballot and manipulate democracy with deceptive marketing,” Williams said in a text message to The Colorado Sun. “Thiry wants to be governor and validate his ego by spending his massive wealth to change the rules of the game so he can have a better chance at winning.”

In an interview with The Sun, Murib echoed Williams’ concerns, saying Thiry’s proposal, in particular the ditching the caucus and assembly ballot-access process altogether for signature gathering, would “create a pay-to-play system for elected office in Colorado where only the wealthy millionaires and billionaires and self-funders would have access to elected office in Colorado.”

Murib said he isn’t opposed to some changes to Colorado’s elections system.

“I love unaffiliated participation in our politics,” he said. “… We need to rethink our caucus process. ​​I think we need to rethink how high a threshold it is to get signatures across the state because it really blocks off grassroots candidates.”

But he said he’d like to see more cities in Colorado try out ranked-choice voting or other alternatives before the system is adopted statewide.

Implementing such a complicated system before the 2026 election is also worrisome to county clerks. Additionally, Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said some studies indicate ranked-choice voting may confuse voters and discourage people of color and seniors from casting ballots.

“Traditionally, we’ve been very skeptical of ranked-choice voting,” Crane said.

  MORE:   Three versions of the proposal were filed last week with the state’s Title Board. The designated proponents are listed as Charles Dukes, a Commerce City councilman, and Roberta Lynn Moreland, who worked on the ranked-choice voting system Fort Collins will begin using next year.

We examined the differences among the three initiatives:

Something that we didn’t know about before: Each measure would also declare that “it is the intent of the people of Colorado that all votes lawfully cast are counted before 11:59 p.m. on Election Day, and when not reasonably possible, as soon as is practicable.” The initiatives would let county clerks begin counting ballots as soon as they receive them — right now counting can’t start until 15 days before Election Day — and direct local election officials to “use all reasonable efforts, including requesting sufficient staff and resources, to foster the timely reporting of election results beginning at 7 p.m. on Election Day.”

“The General Assembly shall provide the necessary funding so that counties have adequate staffing, systems and technology to timely complete the counting and reporting of election results,” the initiatives declare.

The measures are still a long way from appearing on the 2024 ballot.

The public may comment on the proposals at a 10 a.m. hearing Dec. 5 that will kick off the state Title Board’s review process.

Assuming the initiatives are approved by the board, Thiry and other supporters of the proposals must collect roughly 125,000 voter signatures that represent a sample of at least 2% of voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts to qualify.

Then, to pass, the measures would have to be approved by 55% of the electorate because they seek to amend the constitution.

Women make up 49% of the Colorado legislature, compared with 34% in 2003. Click on the graphic for a larger version. (Sandra Fish, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Women were going to make up the majority of representatives and senators in the Colorado General Assembly this year. But when state Rep. Tracey Bernett, a Boulder County Democrat, resigned on the eve of the regular 2024 legislative session, they wound up tied with men 50-50 after Louisville City Councilman Kyle Brown, a Democrat, was appointed as her replacement. (Bernett later pleaded guilty to lying about her residence.)

Since the legislature’s regular session ended in early May, women have fallen into a 51-49 minority after Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez resigned to serve on Denver’s City Council and a vacancy committee appointed Tim Hernández, a Democratic activist, to fill her seat.

Colorado now ranks No. 3 in the nation for the percentage of women in its state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Nevada is No. 1 at 60% and Arizona is No. 2 at 50%.

In all three states, Democratic women significantly outnumber Republican women. In Colorado, the number of Republican women has dropped to seven from 11 in the past 20 years as the party has lost its grip on the Capitol. (In 2003, Republicans held a 55-45 majority, compared with Democrats’ 69-31 majority today.)

The number of Republican men in the legislature has also fallen since 2003, to 24 from 44.

Conservative activist Michael Fields speaks during Republicans’ “Commitment to Colorado” news conference at a Sinclair station Aug. 9, 2021, in Denver. Because Fields is running 2024 ballot measures on property taxes, he is barred from serving on a task force charged with coming up with a long-term property tax policy plan for Colorado. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Colorado task force charged with coming up with a long-term solution to Coloradans’ rising property tax bills after the failure of Proposition HH won’t include a key set of power players: people who are pursuing or already have a measure on the 2024 ballot that would change the state’s property tax code.

The legislation forming the task force, passed by the Democratic majority at the Colorado Capitol during the recent special legislative session, specifically bars anyone who is a “designated representative” of a 2024 property tax ballot measure or who is a member of an issue committee that supports or opposes such an initiative from being one of the 19 appointees to the panel.

That includes activists and business leaders like Michael Fields, who runs Advance Colorado, the conservative political nonprofit behind the 2024 ballot measure capping annual property tax increases at 4%; Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, the liberal political nonprofit pursuing two ballot initiatives for next year that would counteract Fields’ proposal by raising rates on more expensive homes; and Mike Kopp, the CEO of Colorado Concern, a nonprofit representing business leaders that wants to ask voters to roll back property valuations to their pre-pandemic levels and then limit future value increases.

“We didn’t want the commission to turn into a place where commissioners were just trying to advocate for their own ballot measure,” said Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the task force bill.

But the decision to exclude those people from the bipartisan task force, which will have members representing different interests and different parts of the state, may make it harder to persuade voters in 2024 to adopt a change with longevity. If there are multiple, seemingly competing initiatives on the ballot, they all run the risk of being rejected or, in a policy nightmare, passing in some wacky combination and upending state and local budgets.

Wasserman, for one, thinks the provision is “a fair parameter,” because anyone with a preconceived notion of what the property tax code should look like probably isn’t right for a task force. That being said, he still thinks the task force’s work will be informed by the proposals offered by his group and others.

“I have to believe there will be cross-pollination,” he said.

Fields said he doesn’t “have a whole lot of faith” in the task force. He thinks members of the panel will come to the work with ready-made ideas and are unlikely to budge from their positions.

“I think it’s unrealistic that you’re going to have people in there who are going to be swayed by conversation,” he said.

The reality is that the proposals offered by Wasserman, Fields and Kopp are meant as much to shape the property tax conversation as they are to be real solutions.

Fields has told The Colorado Sun he would pull his measure, Initiative 50, off the 2024 ballot if the legislature comes up with what he thinks is a suitable alternative. That would have to include some sort of a cap on annual property tax increases, which may be a nonstarter for Democrats.

Kopp, who didn’t respond to Colorado Sun texts seeking comment, also suggested that Colorado Concern would back down if the legislature comes up with something else the nonprofit feels is adequate.

“Our filing today represents the beginning, not the end of the process,“ Kopp said in a written statement earlier this month in a news release rolling out Colorado Concern’s proposal. “We look forward to working with leaders in the state Capitol and, more importantly, civic and business leaders outside of the legislative arena, to implement a plan that protects the taxpayers of this state.”

  MORE:   Appointments to the task force will be made by Dec. 4 and the commission will start meeting the next day. Meetings will continue at least twice a month through at least mid-March, when it must present its findings to the governor and the legislature.

The legislature set aside $121,000 to fund the task force’s work, including for nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff to pay a research analyst and economist to assist the commission. The money will also pay for a third-party facilitator for the task force.

  ADDENDUM:   The Colorado Tax Rollback is a new issue committee formed to support Initiative 50, the Advance Colorado measure on the 2024 ballot that would limit statewide property tax increases each year to 4%. The limit could only be exceeded by a vote of the people.

The committee will also support the passage of Initiatives 93 and 94, two more 2024 ballot measures proposed by Advance Colorado. They would amend the state constitution to reset property values for the 2024 tax year to their pre-pandemic levels.

Fields is listed as the registered agent of the committee.

Colorado State University in Fort Collins enrolls over 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Outside the state Capitol, the possibility that lawmakers could finally eliminate Colorado’s K-12 funding shortfall this year captured most of the attention when Gov. Jared Polis released his spending plan for the 2024-25 budget year.

But inside the Gold Dome, the focus in the coming months may be over another kind of school funding.

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and vice chair of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, called higher education “the area of the budget I’m most concerned about” after Polis presented his proposal earlier this month.

It’s easy to see why.

Out of the “Big Six” departments that make up 90% of the state’s General Fund spending, Higher Education was the only one slated for a funding cut under Polis’ proposed budget. The proposed decrease is small — just $7 million, or 0.4% out of $1.5 billion in spending. But the impact may be more significant than it sounds.

Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat on the JBC, pointed out that institutions of higher education will already be under financial pressure next year. Under the latest collective bargaining agreement with the state workers union, Colorado WINS, state agencies can expect to pay 6.7% more on salaries as they implement the state’s new compensation plan and an across-the-board pay raise, nonpartisan budget staff analysts told the JBC on Monday.

Polis is calling on colleges and universities to limit tuition increases to 2% for in-state students under his proposal, which calls for a $33 million increase in state operating support. But neither the governor nor the legislature has final say over tuition, which is set by college governing boards.

The governor suggested that budget writers should look to “drive administrative and operational efficiencies” in higher education — in other words, force universities to get by with less. To the extent they need more money, he added, they could look to increase out-of-state tuition instead.

Trouble is, lawmakers have already been doing both of those things for decades. The result has been higher tuition for everyone, and a shift in admissions toward out-of-state students.

In past recessions, higher education has been “one of the only areas” lawmakers have been able to cut in order to balance the budget, according to a JBC staff memo.

Other Western states have reserves set aside to actually increase funding for colleges and universities, because enrollment often soars when the economy tanks. But “in Colorado, simply avoiding large reductions … would be a significant positive step,” budget analysts wrote.

The other place lawmakers tend to find savings? K-12 education. But if Colorado policymakers are serious about eliminating the school funding shortfall for good, that could leave higher education alone on the chopping block among the large departments.

Want to reach Colorado political influencers and support quality local journalism? The Sun can help get your message attention through a sponsorship of The Unaffiliated, the must-read politics and policy newsletter in Colorado. Contact Sylvia Harmon at underwriting@coloradosun.com for more information.

>>   GOVERNOR’S OFFICE:   Democratic Gov. Jared Polis promoted Conor Cahill to communications director from press secretary. He replaces Maria De Cambra, who was appointed executive director of the Department of Local Affairs and starts in that role on Dec. 4. “Conor has been a strong voice and dedicated member of my administration for five years and I am thrilled that he will continue serving Colorado and our team as communications director,” Polis said in a written statement. Shelby Wieman, Polis’ speechwriter and a former spokeswoman for then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, will take over as Polis’ press secretary. Polis called Wieman “one of the longest-serving and most trusted members of my team.”

>>   MICHAEL BENNET:   Neil Kornze has stepped down from his role as chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a role he had for about a year, to become a senior vice president at Cassidy & Associates, a large lobbying firm. Kornze served as director of the Bureau of Land Management under President Barack Obama. Amy Friedman, Bennet’s assistant chief of staff, will replace Kornze.

>>   SCHOOL BOARDS:   Aspen School District board member Katy Frisch lost her reelection bid earlier this month. Frisch, an unaffiliated voter, is married to former Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch, who is running as a Democrat in the 3rd Congressional District to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. In northern Colorado, Amy Musgrave, daughter of former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Colorado Republican, won a seat on the Weld RE-5J school board.

>>   COLORADO DEMOCRATIC PARTY:   Shad Murib’s day job is serving as chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, but he also has a side gig helping his wife, former state Sen. Kerry Donovan, operate their Eagle County ranch. Murib was recently kicked in the face by a horse, resulting in what he calls a “cowboy nose.” It’s broken and required surgery. Murib and the horse are fine, as he noted in a TikTok video.

  STORY:   Most of the Colorado school board candidates backed by teachers unions won their races this year

  STORY:   Gunnison elects first Cora Indian to city council, giving voice to community that lived mainly in the shadows

  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS:   Colorado Supreme Court will hear appeal of ruling that Trump can stay on ballot despite insurrection

  CBS:   Ken Buck says elected officials who say 2020 election was stolen are “lying to America”

  CBS:   Michael Bennet says Ukraine aid shouldn’t require “negotiation on the U.S. border”

  WESTWORD:   Anti-genocide or anti-Semitism? Creative Artists Agency cuts ties with Saira Rao over Israel comments

  THE DENVER POST:   Denver auditor says lax oversight undermines city’s affordable housing goals

  COLORADO PUBLIC RADIO:   How did property taxes become a political emergency in Colorado? 40 years of history and one wild market

  9NEWS:   Colorado GOP calls for canvass boards not to certify 2023 election results

Pat Stryker smiles with others as the Jazz Alley was unveiled outside the first floor of Fort Collins’ Mitchell Block in 2011. She gave $500,000 on Sept. 14 to the Biden Victory Fund. (Fort Collins Coloradoan)

Two of Colorado’s biggest political donors made big contributions in September.

Billionaire Phil Anschutz, a prolific Republican donor, gave $100,000 to former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership PAC, the McCarthy Victory Fund, on Sept. 27 and $88,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee on the same day.

McCarthy, a California Republican, was ousted as speaker on Oct. 3.

Pat Stryker, a Fort Collins businesswoman, philanthropist and Democratic donor, gave $500,000 on Sept. 14 to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that gives money to President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign and to the Democratic National Committee and state-level parties.

Anschutz, who is one of the wealthiest 200 people in the world, was No. 4 on the list of Coloradans who gave the most money to federal candidates and political action committees during the 2022 election cycle. His Anschutz Corp. owns the Los Angeles Kings and the arena where the NHL team play, the Coachella Valley Music Festival, and Clarity Media, which includes The Colorado Springs and Denver Gazette.

Stryker was No. 5 on the list of Colorado’s biggest donors to federal campaigns and committees last year. She inherited a portion of her family’s shares in a medical technology company, the Stryker Corp., and has had her own business pursuits.

>> Members of Congress head for the exits, many citing dysfunction (The New York Times)

>> Nikki Haley’s challenge: Keep anti-Trump GOP vote, add some Trump backers (The Wall Street Journal)

>> Affordable housing taxes sweep the ballots in three U.S. cities (Bloomberg)

>> How election officials are planning to avoid a repeat of 2020’s slow vote count (Politico)

>> As the NRA fades, a more zealous U.S. pro-gun group rises as a lobbying power (The Guardian)

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