Mar 12, 2021 | NEWS | By Amelia Allen | Illustration by Bibi Powers
The last time voters in Colorado Springs saw a ballot, there were a lot of questions on it. One question asked voters whether they wanted to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, another dealt with abortion, and other questions asked about taxes, gambling, and more.
On April 6, Colorado Springs voters will see only one question on their local election ballot beyond their preferences for candidates: whether to lift a 30-word limit from future ballot questions.
The reason is that ever since Colorado Springs voters approved a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1991 (commonly known as TABOR), city leaders have had to jam complex tax and spending proposals into 30-word packages on city election ballots.
A 30-word ballot measure limit, outlined in the Colorado Springs city charter, was one of the various aspects of TABOR beyond the otherwise popular requirement that voters must approve tax increases.
Another provision of the 30-year-old law is that of those 30 words, almost half of them are the beginning mandatory phrase for any tax or bonded debt increase: “shall taxes/bonded debt be increased by…” followed by a dollar figure for the upcoming fiscal year.
Colorado Springs is the only city in the state subject to the 30-word limit. When the rest of Colorado approved TABOR in 1992, a 30-word limit wasn’t part of the statewide law.
The April 6 question will ask voters to get rid of the word limit.
Those pushing for the change include Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, City Council President Richard Skorman, and the Trails and Open Space Coalition, among others. Allowing the question on the ballot passed unanimously through the nine-member city council in January without any stated opposition in public meetings from community members.
“You don’t have any ability to really tell people what you’re asking them to give their money for,” Skorman said. “And certainly, don’t have any ability to explain how it’s going to be accountable.”
Now, amid a sprawling campaign with 21 candidates angling for six seats up for grabs on the council, a majority of them agree that lifting the 30-word limit would increase understanding of future ballot measures.
Still, this rather un-sexy ballot issue isn’t a focal point for most campaigns. At least three candidates admitted in February that they didn’t even know such a question would appear alongside their names on the April 6 ballot.
This is the second proposal to lift the 30-word limit since the turn of the century. City council tried and failed to lift the word limit in 2005, which Skorman attributes to an unusually low voter turnout that year.
“This dates back before people received mail ballots, where there was a concern of how long someone might be in a voting booth,” said councilman Wayne Williams in a January city council meeting.
Douglas Bruce, who led the TABOR movement in the Springs and Colorado, told the local FOX21 TV station he opposes this year’s ballot measure because he fears it could allow “a laundry list of city projects” meant to “bribe taxpayers with their own money in order to build a coalition of special interest groups for their own pet projects.”
Penn Pfiffner, former Colorado legislator and longtime TABOR advocate, says the intent of a word limit is to demand a clear, concise proposal from those looking to change or make new ordinances. A limit also pushes voters to research ballot issues before they bubble in a “yes” or “no” on a ballot.
Other word-limit defenders include District 3 candidate Olivia Lupia, downtown District 5 candidate Mary Elizabeth Fabian, and local conservative radio host Jeff Crank. Fabian and Crank fear ballot-question writers could manipulate ballot measures if they have an unlimited word count.
Most city council candidates and current council members say that ballot measures should still be clear and concise, even without the word limit.
The Trails and Open Space Coalition brought lifting the 30-word-limit to the attention of Mayor Suthers in December after conducting a poll to see if voters would support a minimal tax increase for parks in the Springs. Respondents replied yes, but to secure funding, TOSC needs more than 30 words in a ballot measure to garner voter support.
In a video statement to FOX 21 News, Mayor Suthers cited another recent poll that indicated voter unwillingness to approve a tourist tax increase on lodging and automobile rentals as an example of the restrictiveness of the 30-word limit.
“When we poll it, and use the language that’s required … and you don’t tell them where the money’s gonna go, it will fail,” said Suthers. “But if you say it’s a tax paid by tourists … it would pass overwhelmingly.”
Susan Davies, executive director of the TOSC, echoed Suthers’ sentiment about the LART tax poll in an interview.
“The only time you’re going to be paying this tax is if you’re renting a hotel room in Colorado Springs,” said Davies. “How many people do that?”
If voters approve the ballot measure, funding secured by future ballot questions likely won’t just stop at Trails and Open Spaces.
Lifting the word limit may lead to voter approval of funding for urban planning and affordable housing initiatives in the Springs. Northwest District 1 candidate Jim Mason sees passing the ballot measure as important for improving public transportation, too.
The Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, an organization dedicated to bolstering local businesses, recently launched a campaign called “Vote Yes on 1” to promote passing the ballot measure.
So far, city leaders seem to be at a consensus that lifting the word limit will only improve voters’ decision-making abilities when they receive their ballots.
“People tend to say no to issues they don’t understand,” said Skorman. “It’s for voter clarity.”