May 6, 2024 - Politics

Colorado lawmakers strike deals to avoid 2024 election ballot fights

Illustration of the Colorado State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: DivInc

The Capitol is becoming a Looney Tunes cartoon with lawmakers looking to the sky as an anvil threatens to drop on their heads.

Threat level: The governor and Colorado lawmakers are scrambling — beep, beep — to avoid getting crushed by ballot referendums from special interests that they believe would irreparably harm the state.

  • Three bills introduced in the final days of the legislative session are designed as compromise measures to avoid political fights on the November ballot on oil and gas, civil lawsuits and property taxes.

Why it matters: The threat of ballot measures is emerging as a powerful check on the Democratic majority's power at the Capitol — one used by conservatives and liberal factions — and the half-baked compromises are frustrating lawmakers who wanted to see a different result.

What they're saying: "Despite progressive leadership at the state Capitol, legislators will continue to be forced to make less-than-ideal concessions to conservative forces spending big sums of money to threaten the legislature with competing ballot measures," Scott Wasserman, the president of the liberal Bell Policy Center, said in a statement.

The big picture: Using a ballot measure as a negotiating tactic is not new, but the number and far-reaching impact of the last-minute deals goes beyond what lawmakers have seen in recent years.

Inside the room: House Speaker Pro Tem Chris deGruy Kennedy (D-Lakewood) outwardly vented to colleagues in a meeting Monday that Democrats ceded more ground than they wanted in negotiations on the property tax bill — particularly because it doesn't quell conservative concerns. "There is a … recognition that we are a rock and a hard place," he lamented.

  • But he pleaded for his colleagues to support the measure because it's a "far better outcome" than the potential ballot measures, which he argued would create a "constitutional crisis" in education funding because of how deep it would cut taxes.

Zoom in: The property tax bill — which still doesn't satisfy conservatives — debuted Monday with just three days left in the session, the minimum time needed to pass a bill in Colorado.

  • The legislation would hold residential and commercial property tax rates at current levels for taxes owed in 2025, then increase in the future while providing homeowners a 10% exemption on the first $700,000 in value, up to $70,000.
  • It also includes a new cap on local government collections at 5.5% growth a year.

The new bill to increase the caps on damages for plaintiffs in civil lawsuits would negate competing ballot measures, one of which would have asked voters to remove all caps for catastrophic-injury and medical-malpractice deaths. The compromise means various interests will not pursue a ballot campaign.

  • Instead the bill raises noneconomic damage limits for medical malpractice lawsuits to $875,000, up from the current $300,000. It also increases the cap on general liability lawsuits to $2.125 million, about double the current level.

The oil and gas compromise package, which won final House approval Monday, imposes new ozone pollution limits and raises fees on a barrel of oil to fund mitigation and transportation initiatives.

  • Negotiated by environmentalists and major oil and gas companies like Chevron, the legislation came under fire from smaller operators who called it a "backroom deal" that would force them to cut operations.
  • But both sides agreed to pull their ballot measures from consideration.

What we're watching: With the clock ticking, lawmakers will need to work quickly and find cohesive support to pass the legislation before Wednesday's adjournment.


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