Hot summer for Colorado initiatives

California’s crown as the king of the initiative is about to be snatched by Colorado. The Colorado secretary of State’s office is besieged by truckload after truckload of baled petitions being submitted by various groups seeking a spot on November’s ballot. It’s a crowded house these days.

Seven initiatives have already been certified for the ballot (or their petitions await certification). Another eight to 10 measures are widely expected to submit petitions in coming days. And four referred measures are already on the statewide ballot. At the least, there will be 15 significant ballot measures before voters when they look at their ballots in a few months.

What do I mean by significant? For starters, many of these initiatives are seriously moneyed measures. Several of the proposals will inspire campaigns that spend more on TV and other electioneering than either candidate for the U.S. Senate — Republican Bob Schaffer or Democrat Mark Udall — can possibly bring to his top-tier contest. Some initiative campaigns have already pre-paid for their entire multimillion-dollar TV budgets before their petitions are even certified. So much will be spent on these measures that it is feared that if you don’t buy your TV now, you’ll be frozen out at the end. There won’t be a minute of broadcast time available for initiative advertisers.

But it’s more than money that makes this year special in Colorado. These ballot measures cover a lot of territory and will directly influence a lot of lives. For example, one measure proposes a small sales tax increase statewide to fund programs for those with developmental disabilities. A lot won’t be spent on this campaign — it’s probably more of a grassroots affair — but it will mean a lot to the potential beneficiaries.

There’s something for everyone. Ward Connerly finally brings his anti-affirmative action show to Colorado. The paycheck protection parade is marching. Right-to-work petitioners who have been out of work since a 2001 Oklahoma referendum are in the game this time in Colorado. Unions and trial lawyers are responding with an over-the-top package of four anti-business measures. Right-to-lifers have an oar in the water. The governor, putting his reelection at risk, has unwisely chosen to front one of the largest tax increases in Colorado history, taking on the oil and gas industry in a bid to raise the state’s severance tax. The gaming industry is playing its cards to benefit community colleges.

(Disclosure: I am working on one side or the other in about half these races, so caveat emptor.)

Why is Colorado such a magnet for petitioners this year? In part, it’s because the state has become a test-bed for national politics. In the 1950s pundits might have asked how it plays in Peoria. Today, they wonder how it plays in Poudre River country. The attraction of Colorado for national interests starts with its purple-state status as a key battleground. But it also springs from the state’s relatively cost-effective media markets. Almost all of Colorado’s voters can be reached through three media markets that are affordable and don’t waste advertisers’ dollars touching voters in adjacent states.

But perhaps the key factor in Colorado’s initiative boom is the ease of petitioning. Only 76,000 valid petitions are required and there are no geographical collection requirements like some states impose.

While most campaigns gather 120,000-plus petitions as a cushion should some be invalidated, this is one of the lowest thresholds for signatures in the nation. And the fact that petitions can come in this late is another Colorado indulgence.

Not everyone’s enjoying the surfeit of direct democracy. In particular, the business community must spend continuously to fend off anti-business ballot measures. The excesses of 2008 may result in efforts to cool off Colorado’s hot initiative market. Ironically, it’ll start by someone signing a petition.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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