The Title Board declined to set a ballot title for a $14 million sales tax reduction initiative on Wednesday, finding the proponents' attempt to insulate their measure from legislative interference violated the constitution's requirement that ballot initiatives contain a single subject.
Initiative #45 from Suzanne Taheri and Michael Fields would have lowered the sales and use tax rate from 2.9% to 2.89% for two years only, costing the state $14.2 million in revenue for fiscal year 2023-2024 and $14.9 million the following year.
However, one section of the initiative declared that any "successor legislation" introduced after July 22 of this year would be repealed, and Initiative #45 would prevail.
"Right now there is no right of an initiative proponent not to have their initiative messed with by the General Assembly," observed board member Jason Gelender, "and you’re trying to enact one.”
Taheri and Fields said the language in the initiative was a reaction to Senate Bill 293, which the governor signed into law in June. That legislation created four classes of property and set tax rates for the next two years that are lower than the current rates of residential and nonresidential property. It will cost local governments approximately $200 million in tax revenue.
Enter Initiative #27, for which Fields is also a designated representative. As introduced — months before SB 293 — the initiative would slash local government revenue by over $1 billion annually through lowering property tax rates, and in the process affecting schools, police and fire protection, among other services.
But the legislature's preemptive modification of the property tax law means that if Initiative #27 to were pass, SB 293 would force those rate reductions to apply only to a narrow subset of property — lodging and multifamily residential units.
"This isn't an end run," one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, told Colorado Politics. "Lots of people, especially in multi-family dwelling units, need targeted tax relief. We're trying to create those targets in statute and immediately deliver property tax relief to those categories."
Taheri told the Title Board that the legislature could alter the effect of other ballot initiatives in the same fashion, amending the law after an initiative's text and ballot title were already set.
"We're not doing anything except protecting our single subject," she said in explaining the sales tax reduction measure. “Any legislation that seeks to change the general purpose and intent of this initiative would be repealed and we would go back to the language of this initiative."
“You’re trying to futureproof this initiative against anything the General Assembly may do in the interim before it’s enacted," observed Gelender, who represents the Office of Legislative Legal Services on the board.
However, the board unanimously voted to find the section shielding the initiative from the legislature created a second subject: limiting lawmakers' power to legislate and potentially voiding acts of the General Assembly.
"I see the frustration and the need, but it seems more related to the initiative process and not to sales tax," said board Chair Theresa Conley, representing Secretary of State Jena Griswold. "It says, if you want to do an initiative, this is how you beat the General Assembly."
The three-member Title Board's primary responsibility is to determine whether a proposed ballot initiative fits within a single subject, as the state constitution requires. If so, it sets a title that appears before voters that is brief, yet describes all central features of the measure. Proponents are then on track to collect signatures for placement of the initiative on the statewide ballot.
The board previously approved a title for a related measure from Taheri and Fields, Initiative #41, which would also reduce sales and use tax revenue by approximately $14 million. While the initiative rejected on Wednesday would have lasted for two years, Initiative #41 would cut the rate permanently.