This senior property tax exemption has saved Colorado’s older homeowners millions. But it also has an equity problem.

This senior property tax exemption has saved Colorado’s older homeowners millions. But it also has an equity problem.

As lawmakers continue their efforts to address housing issues, the exemption that’s less available to people of color will get a hard look with an eye toward fairness.

By Kevin Simpson (June 4, 2021)

Dian Feral has lived in the frame house on a corner lot in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood for more than 30 years since she bought it for $87,000 back when she worked the graveyard shift at the Keebler cookie and cracker plant.

It was never what she’d call a good house, situated in what she describes as a “poverty-stricken area” and beset with frequent repairs. But it has nonetheless provided her an affordable home even after the plant closed in 2001 and she fell back on her savings and a company pension that allowed her to pay off the mortgage. 

For the last few years, 69-year-old Feral has squeezed another benefit from the home she shares with three cats and two ferrets. Because of her age and the fact that she has lived in her house for more than 10 years, Feral qualifies for the property tax break called the senior homestead exemption. It saved her $530 off her last tax bill of $1,402.

“It makes a difference,” she says. “That’s a substantial amount of money. It’s maybe one vet bill. It’s a home repair. It’s a lot of things. It’s meaningful.”

In a time of sticker shock from property valuations and rising concern over inequity in the housing market, the two-decades-old exemption stands as both a means of financial relief for many homeowners but also a tool that — in its present form — has raised questions of fairness.

A 2019 study by the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that the exemption disproportionately benefits white homeowners. And overall, roughly half of all older Coloradans don’t qualify for an exemption either because they rent instead of own or, if they do own a home, haven’t lived in it for 10 years. Those who do qualify for the exemption are less likely to be experiencing poverty than all older Coloradans.

Although lawmakers have pushed forward with a measure to provide broad property tax relief in the current session, they have for years flirted with strategies to make the senior exemption a more effective tool — for renters as well as homeowners, for more Black and Latinx homeowners and for more people experiencing poverty.

“People know it’s not an equitable program, and at times the whole program was on the chopping block because the benefits are not distributed equitably,” says state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat. He adds that while bills addressing the senior exemption were introduced twice previously, “neither had kinks worked out.”

A hedge against rising taxes

Voters installed the senior homestead exemption into the state constitution via referendum in 2000 as a means of helping older homeowners remain in their homes as rising property taxes threatened to outrun their often-fixed incomes. The exemption allows those who are at least 65 on Jan. 1 of the year they apply, and who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years, to subtract up to $100,000 of their home’s value before calculating property taxes. (Disabled veterans also can qualify for the exemption.)

Technically, the tax break allows homeowners to deduct 50% of the first $200,000 of appraised value. In Colorado, where the median home price exceeds $500,000, that break easily fits most long-term homeowners in the state’s hottest areas, and can reduce their tax bill by hundreds of dollars. It can also figure into qualifying homeowners’ decision on whether to stay or sell, since the exemption isn’t portable.

Some years ago, an audit of the program raised concerns about “checks and balances” — basically, ensuring that those who claimed the benefit actually qualified, says JoAnn Groff, the state property tax administrator. The result was that the Division of Property Taxation’s role expanded to run applications against databases of deaths and income tax returns to confirm that the properties were, in fact, owner occupied as a primary residence — and that the claimant was still alive.

“The benefit doesn’t get to follow you into the next world,” Groff says. “But when someone passes, the county assessor doesn’t necessarily get it, so this is a way that we can be sure that the exemption ends when someone is no longer with us … It’s a pretty thorough review, short of going out to someone’s house and ringing their doorbell and making sure that they’re living there.”

Since its inception, lawmakers have mulled a number of tweaks to either expand or contract the exemption, which requires the state to backfill lost revenue to the counties that contain the qualifying homes. As Colorado’s populace ages and more people qualify for the exemption, it places a growing burden on the state budget.

In 2002, the state granted 123,380 exemptions and paid counties about $62 million in lost tax revenue. The average tax savings totaled $503.

For the 2020 tax year, Coloradans claimed nearly 270,000 exemptions totaling nearly $158 million in county taxes that had to be backfilled by the state. On average, a qualifying applicant saved $585.

It may seem a drop in the bucket in a $30 billion-plus budget, but it’s not exactly insignificant. 

“It’s big enough that it’s consistently considered when cuts are required,” Kennedy says of the exemption. “We talked about cuts when COVID hit, but fortunately found other things to cut. It’s consistently among the big ticket items that need reform. By making it more equitable, we can reform the longevity of the program.”

County notices of property valuation that went out in January contain an alert that instructs homeowners that they may be eligible for the exemption. A simple application must be completed and filed no later than July 15. Homeowners can contact their county assessor for more information.

Because the exemption is enshrined in the state constitution, lawmakers are limited in what they can do to tweak it. But the legislature does have the authority to adjust the size of the exemption, and can even suspend it during economic dry spells — as it did after the 9/11 attacks in the early 2000s and from 2009 to 2012, when the state budget reeled from the impact of the Great Recession.

AARP keeping tabs

The homestead exemption looms large for AARP Colorado’s roughly 670,000 members — the vast majority of whom are homeowners, including many who have owned their homes for at least 10 years, says state director Bob Murphy. But he also recognizes that while the tax savings can be a nice bonus for well-off Coloradans, the exemption doesn’t extend to a lot of folks for whom even a few hundred dollars could be critical. 

“By any objective analysis (the exemption) is not completely fair,” Murphy says. “Generally 40% of folks who live in Colorado own their homes and 60% rent. So there’s a sort of inherent inequity between owners and renters.

“And it’s not means-tested. I don’t know how many people that would impact, but that’s one of the questions that legislators have grappled with for several years as they look to make changes.”

Murphy says that leads to a third point: A legislative change in the exemption has some urgency because in a state where the population’s older demographic continues to grow, impact on the state budget increases every year.

By any objective analysis (the exemption) is not completely fair.

Bob Murphy, AARP Colorado director

He notes that the Gallagher Amendment, had it not been repealed by voters, would have triggered an 18% decrease in the residential assessment rate — the second largest property tax cut in modern Colorado history. So in addition to removing some longstanding residential property tax relief (another factor in the just-introduced bill) the repeal ends up making the homestead exemption that much more expensive for the state to backfill.

The many moving parts of the state’s financial mechanism make the homestead exemption a tricky thing to try to fix.

“Sometimes those efforts have unintended consequences,” Murphy says. “You could make it more equitable, but that in turn could result in blowing a bigger hole in the state budget….So it’s definitely important to our members, and we understand that we’ve never really had to advocate for or against it. But any objective analysis shows discussion of refining that is probably valid.”

Data points to inequities

The CFI study from 2019 notes that of more than 480,000 Colorado households with at least one older homeowner, only slightly more than half qualify for the exemption. And while 60% of older white households qualify, only 40% of older Black households and 21% of older Latinx households qualify. People of color account for more than a quarter of the over-65 population but only 13.6% of homestead exemption qualifiers. 

Chris Stiffler, CFI senior economist and author of “Inequities in Colorado’s Senior Property Tax Exemption,” notes that the exemption is, in one sense, insulated against well-off homeowners benefitting too much because it’s capped at a $100,000 deduction whether a home is valued at $400,000 or $1 million. But it’s difficult to fine tune it beyond that.

“The legislature can zero it out,” he says, “but it’s trickier to not give it to the super wealthy, and beef it up for lower-income people.”

Stiffler says the purpose of his research wasn’t to come up with any sort of recommendation, but to see what the data would tell him. His biggest takeaway from the research cross-referencing databases was how many Hispanic/Latinx intergenerational families don’t own their homes — which puts them at a disadvantage in terms of the homestead exemption.

He adds that about a dozen states have a “circuit breaker” that kicks in if property taxes exceed 20% of a homeowner’s income and pays the difference to provide relief to lower income seniors.

In Colorado, individual counties sometimes have programs that can help older residents mitigate property taxes, including by doing volunteer work. Homeowners 65 and older also may qualify to defer property taxes. The state treasurer pays the tax in the county where the homeowner resides and places a lien on the property that must be settled once the homeowner dies and the property is sold or the title transferred.

Kennedy says that he plans to propose a bill that would provide means testing for an exemption, but it would likely involve eliminating the current program by dropping the exemption to zero and starting from scratch on a different approach. 

“It’s more complex than it sounds,” he says. “You have to restructure the entire program. We’ve wrestled with it over the years, and we want to make sure it’s equitable and accessible. And we want to make sure it is efficient for the state to administer.”

Key to any revamp, he says, would be finding a way to make it accessible to renters.

“Seniors who rent struggle as much as seniors who own,” Kennedy says. “In addition to property values, Colorado has a competitive rental environment. It’s very difficult to find affordable rental housing. I’m going to work on something over the interim, and come back with (a bill) in 2022. I’ve run a pretty robust stakeholder conversation around this, and I intend to do the same over the interim.”


Colorado Democrats want to use one of TABOR’s most effective tax-halting mechanisms for themselves

Colorado Democrats want to use one of TABOR’s most effective tax-halting mechanisms for themselves

House Bill 1321 comes as progressives have all but given up on doing away with TABOR, the 1992 constitutional amendment that has served as a third rail in Colorado politics ever since its passage

By Jesse Paul (May 21, 2021)

One of the most effective parts of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights when it comes to stopping tax-raising ballot questions in Colorado is a requirement that voters be informed, IN CAPITAL LETTERS, about the eye-popping sum they are deciding whether to allow the government to collect.

“SHALL STATE TAXES BE INCREASED $766,700,000 ANNUALLY FOR A TWENTY-YEAR PERIOD?” Proposition 110, which was focused on raising money for transportation projects, scream-asked voters in 2018. (It failed.)  

Now, Democrats are trying to adapt that potent TABOR transparency tool for their own purposes. 

House Bill 1321, a measure introduced at the Capitol this week, would require voters to be informed of which programs would be affected by ballot questions decreasing taxes. 

The legislation would require the following language be attached to tax-reducing ballot measures: “Shall funding available for state services that include, but are not limited to, (the three largest areas of program expenditures) be impacted by a reduction of (projected dollar figure of revenue reduction to the state in the first full fiscal year that the measure reduces revenue) in tax revenue…?”

The bill would also mandate that ballots containing tax questions highlight how many people in which tax brackets would be most affected by tax hikes or decreases, and require that ballot titles for tax increases state that the aim is to “increase or improve levels of public services” and then list those services. 

“It’s an attempt to provide more information and level the playing field,” said Carol Hedges, who leads the liberal-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute, which supports the measure. “Currently, the all-caps language focuses people’s attention only on the size of state government. We know that the size of state government is not the only factor people should be considering.”

Scott Wasserman, who leads the Bell Policy Center, a liberal advocacy organization, called the measure “a great idea” that seeks to offset what he sees as the manipulative aspects of TABOR.

House Bill 1321 comes as progressives have all but given up on trying to do away with TABOR, the 1992 constitutional amendment that requires voter approval for tax hikes and limits government spending and which has been a third rail in Colorado politics ever since its passage. Democrats are now trying to work within TABOR’s confines to find ways to raise revenue and reform the tax code. 

“I think that this legislature in particular has finally said ‘enough is enough,’” Hedges said. “I don’t think it’s nefarious. I think it’s an acceptance of the idea that this is what we’ve got.”

Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who is a prime sponsor of the measure, said it is a “stop-the-bleeding bill.”

“What we’ve seen, increasingly, is that Republicans, who have not been successful at winning majorities here at the Capitol in recent years, are increasingly turning their attention to the ballot and using that as a way to try to get government closer to the size that can be drowned in a bathtub,” he said. “We’d prefer that government not drown in the bathtub. We’d prefer that ballot measures don’t continue to chip away at our ability to fund our public schools and the other priorities that the voters of the state care about.”

Kennedy said people don’t always connect the dots between a potential tax decrease and the programs and initiatives that are likely to be cut as a result.

“In Colorado, we empower voters to make a lot of big decisions on the ballot,” he said. “And I think it’s only fair that they see the whole picture.”

Proponents of progressive tax-increase questions may benefit the most from the legislation since it would show voters that higher earners would have to pay more under the proposals. Reforming Colorado’s tax code to make wealthier people and businesses pay more has been a top policy goal for Democrats.

Kennedy says there’s no requirement that the language that would have to be added to tax ballot measures would have to be in capital letters as TABOR mandates. 

“We all swore an oath to uphold the constitution,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to like everything that’s in it. I think we are respecting the powers that be and just trying to make sure voters are given this information if they are going to be making these big decisions.”

The other prime sponsors of House Bill 1321 are Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, and Democratic Sens. Dominick Moreno, of Commerce City, and Brittany Pettersen, of Lakewood. The legislation is slated to get its first committee hearing next week.


House committee approves bill to cap drug prices

House committee approves bill to cap drug prices

By Marianne Goodland (May 20, 2021)

While the big fight on healthcare in the 2021 session has been focused on the Colorado Option bill, a fight that hasn’t gotten as much attention but is almost as big is being waged over prescription drug costs.

While everyone acknowledges that prescription drugs are becoming more unaffordable, there was plenty of argument on both sides about whether Senate Bill 175 is the best way to address it.

SB 175 was reviewed Wednesday night in a five-hour hearing with the House Health & Insurance Committee. That’s after the bill got an eight-hour hearing in the Senate Health & Human Services Committee back in March, along with dozens of amendments from sponsors and opponents and a two-hour floor debate in the Senate almost two months later, on May 6.

What the bill does: beginning Jan. 1, 2022, the bill makes it illegal to buy a prescription drug at a cost that exceeds the price cap established by the new five-member Prescription Drug Affordability Review Board. The state board, to be appointed by the governor no later than Oct. 1 and confirmed by the state Senate, would set an upper payment limit for a dozen prescription drugs per year for three years, for a total of 36 drugs. Board members must all have advanced degrees and expertise in healthcare economics or clinical medicine.

Insurance carriers and pharmacy benefit managers must report to a state database, known as the “All-Payer Health Claims Database,” the top 15 most expensive drugs paid for by insurance carriers, as determined by total annual plan spending; the top 15 drugs that account for highest increase in total annual spending, the top 15 drugs that caused the greatest increase in insurance premiums, and the top 15 drugs that the carrier paid for most frequently and/or which earned the biggest rebates from manufacturers.

Carriers and PBMs also must report total spending for brand-name drugs and generics, and drugs administered by hospitals in both in- and out-patient settings.

That information will be used to review the drugs for which the board will set price caps.

Bill sponsors Reps. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, and Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, noted the bill has a five-year sunset, so that group of 36 drugs with price caps may be the only ones that are reviewed by the board in its first five years.

And while “orphan” drugs, which are used to treat rare medical conditions and may be exorbitantly expensive, are exempt under the bill, other expensive (and life-saving) medications are not. And that’s what drew dozens to the hearing Wednesday night, to warn that their lives could be put at risk if they can’t get the medications they need for cancer or cystic fibrosis, for example.

On the other side, patients with long-term conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, testified that their medications are so expensive that in some cases they break up doses or aren’t taking them at all.

“We are not here to demonize the pharmaceutical industry, but we are here to try to correct a market failure,” Kennedy said at the beginning of the hearing. As to claims made by pharmaceutical companies that research and development are big cost-drivers for drugs, Kennedy said he believes those costs are based more on what the market will bear. He recounted the story of a family friend with cystic fibrosis, who has now lived to the age of 39, well past what was expected.

“I am thankful for these drugs that are changing their lives, but some of these drugs are bankrupting families at the same time,” he said.

He also claimed nine out of 10 of the largest drug companies spend more on marketing than on researching new medicines as well as millions of dollars on lobbying. Kennedy said he believes wholesalers, the so-called middle man between pharmacies and manufacturers, will pay less for drugs, responding to the price caps, and will be reimbursed by the manufacturers for the difference.

“We really don’t believe that in-state purchasers are stuck in the middle in this bill,” Kennedy said.

However, not one witness confirmed that claim, and no one representing wholesalers testified at the hearing.

Kim Bimestefer, executive director of the state Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing, testified that high-cost drugs are the leading cause of the overall healthcare cost crisis. Less than 2% of drugs prescribed in Colorado consume 50% of the overall prescription drug budgets for Medicaid and employers, she claimed.

And while Kennedy said he wasn’t out to demonize the pharmaceutical industry, Isabel Cruz of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative had no trouble doing so.

“Drug manufacturing companies spend billions of dollars a year on marketing and advertising and pay enormous fines from unethical business practices. Even in the midst of a pandemic, they have continued to choose profit over people and increase prices well beyond the rate of inflation,” she told the committee.

The committee also heard from patients who struggle to pay for prescriptions.

Mike Russell of Highlands Ranch, representing the national Multiple Sclerosis Society, has primary progressive MS. He has to support his family on a $20-per-hour job and prescription costs at $5,000 per year. He estimated that 40% alter their medication doses or stop taking them completely because of cost. He gets an infusion twice a year, and last year it was $32,000 per infusion. The cost increased to $35,000 in 2021, and his out-of-pocket cost was $5,000.

“I urge you to help pass the bill and stop the choices of feeding your family or taking your prescribed medications,” he said.

One witness from Ridgway testified that her son has a rare autoinflammatory disorder with prescription drug cost at $5,000 per month. Her husband’s insurance covered it, until the costs went up so much that their claims were denied. They had to switch to a drug that was covered under the insurance, but that meant the medication that made the greatest impact on his condition was not covered.

SB 175 passed on a party-line 8-4 vote and was sent to the House Appropriations Committee.


House panel advances $75M broadband expansion proposal, largest stimulus bill to date

House panel advances $75M broadband expansion proposal, largest stimulus bill to date

By Pat Poblete (May 4, 2021)

A House panel on Tuesday advanced a $75 million proposal to build out the state’s broadband infrastructure, the largest state stimulus bill to begin working through the legislative process so far.

House Bill 21-1289 from Reps. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, and Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, divvies up the appropriation by sending:

  • $35 million through the Broadband Deployment Board at the state Department of Regulatory Affairs for so-called “last mile” projects that aim to link telecommunication networks to users’ homes;
  • $5 million to the Interconnectivity Grant Program Fund in the Department of Local Affairs to fund so-called “middle mile” projects linking the last mile to a telecommunication network operator’s core network;
  • $10 million to both the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribal nations, who have broad discretion on how the funds can be used to build out broadband infrastructure;
  • and $15 million to boost connectivity for telehealth providers.

The bill also formally codifies the Colorado Broadband Office, which was created by executive order by former Gov. John Hickenlooper and has since been operating under the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology. Kennedy told the House Transportation and Local Government Committee he and Baisley wanted to create a formal structure for that office to “make sure that all these different funds are coordinating with each other.”

“If there’s a local government project here and an industry project here, they should know what’s going on, make sure that all of those are going into the mapping process that they have and then giving an opportunity for facilitating these conversations about where the highest priority projects are in the future,” Kennedy said.

Though the bill eventually cleared the committee on a bipartisan 9-1 vote, several members of the panel expressed concerns with the direction of money, particularly with the amount dedicated toward middle mile projects.

According to Kate Sneed, OIT’s legislative liaison, the bill’s sponsors and stakeholders settled on that number after an “interesting game of moving parts” conducted after learning local governments were in line for a large chunk of federal stimulus dollars for broadband deployment.

“We’ve rearranged some things based on the knowledge that we will be getting, or expectation that we will be getting, significant money to local governments for the middle mile aspect,” she said.

The $5 million for middle mile projects is set to replace the standard amount DOLA would dole out through the grant program. The agency’s legislative liaison, Bruce Eisenhower, indicated the program has been running since 2013 but DOLA was not planning to dedicate any money to the grant program this year due to a lack of revenue.

Overall, Eisenhower said DOLA has released just under $30 million in grant funds to local governments for middle mile projects. Those grants generated more than $65 million in spending on broadband expansion when factoring in the local match accompanying those grants and a total of 147 miles of fiber built, Eisenhower said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed concern with the matching provision. Rep. Donald Valdez, D-La Jara, indicated rural communities are “trying to find a balance with the funding aspect” in the wake of the pandemic.

“I just see and continue to see some of the low-income counties in our state continue to be left behind,” he said.

Eisenhower countered that his agency had learned in the course of administering the program that “any participation at all brings that buy-in, that commitment from the local government to see it through.”

“If it’s funded entirely, it doesn’t have that sort of buy-in and commitment to get it done and bring the best product forth for their community, so we feel it’s very important, whether it’s a smaller amount or 50% or more, that the local government does have buy-in,” he said.

Rep. Marc Catlin said he understood the need for buy-in from locals but highlighted that “these folks are having trouble paying a lot of the bills they’ve got anyway.”

“It seems like we’re putting a barrier in front of some of these communities that may be of the most need,” the Montrose Republican said.

And that need is dire, according to Miriam Gillow-Wiles of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments. She also said she would like to see an increase in funding for middle mile projects and highlighted overall need in some regions of the state.

According to Gillow-Wiles, a study conducted by Montezuma County estimated the cost to provide broadband service to all 25,000 of the county’s residence came in around $100 million.

Kennedy acknowledged the state’s “tremendous amount of unmet need,” noting that the dollars in the bill wouldn’t cover all of Montezuma County’s need, never mind the whole state.

“So what you’re seeing here is us attempting to balance those needs: give some money for last mile, some for middle mile, some for telehealth and some to the Ute Nations to try to move the ball forward,” he said. “We’ve done our best to balance those interests and advocate for the dollars in the places we believe there are the greatest needs.”

Ultimately, each member of the panel present for the hearing backed the bill except Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican. The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.


Three-quarters of Colorado voters want to create a board to lower prescription drug prices

Three-quarters of Colorado voters want to create a board to lower prescription drug prices

By Pat Poblete (May 3, 2021)

Three out of four Colorado voters back a bill working its way through the General Assembly that seeks to lower prescription drug costs with a board that could set price limits on expensive medications, according to a new poll from Keating Research released Monday.

The poll – commissioned by Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, Good Business Colorado, the National MS Society and Centennial State Prosperity and conducted between April 20 and 26 – shows broad support for the concept of Senate Bill 21-175 across party, region and age.

That bill would create the Prescription Drug Affordability Board, a five-member panel appointed by Gov. Jared Polis that would research, review and establish payment limits for drugs deemed unaffordable. The governor has previously spoken in support of the measure.

Of the 528 active voters who were asked about “a proposal that would create a state board of appointed healthcare experts who would analyze and act to lower the cost of certain prescription drugs,” 74% said they were supportive, with 42% of the overall sample in the “strongly support” category.

The concept of a prescription drug board was backed by majorities in each party, including by 89% of Democrats, 60% of Republicans and 74% of unaffiliated voters. Democrats made up 30% of the sample with Republicans making up 27% and unaffiliated voters rounding out the remaining 42%.

The poll also found widespread support across the four regions it grouped voters into, including:

  • Denver and Boulder counties, where 79% were supportive;
  • Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Douglas, and Jefferson counties, suburbs where the poll found 73% support;
  • Front Range Larimer, Weld, Pueblo, and El Paso counties, where 76% of voters indicated they were supportive;
  • And the state’s remaining 53 counties, rural areas where the poll found 68% support.

The poll, which has a plus-or-minus 4.3% margin of error at the 95% confidence level, skewed slightly toward the suburban counties, which made up 38% of the sample. The Front Range counties were the next largest group in the sample with 26%, followed by Denver and Boulder with 19% and the rural counties at 17%.

Support for the proposal by age ranged from 68% on the low end, from those between 35-49, and 80% on the high end, from 50-64-year-olds.

The results match with a poll released by CCCHI earlier this year that found 77% of respondents supported a state board of appointed healthcare experts that would work to lower the cost of prescription drugs. After hearing arguments against the board, over 70% of respondents to that poll still supported it.

Since that poll, which was conducted last December and released in January, Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont, and Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Reps. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, and Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, introduced SB 175. The bill has cleared the Senate Health and Human Services Committee as well as the chamber’s Appropriations Committee and is scheduled for consideration before the full chamber on Tuesday.

It faces opposition from Republican lawmakers, who voted against it in both committees and have previously express concerns that it would impact the pharmaceutical industry’s research and development capacity.

The bill also drew opposition from the industry. A spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America the trade group representing the pharmaceutical industry, in a statement to Colorado Politics in March said, “Creating a board of unelected bureaucrats with the authority to arbitrarily decide what medicines are worth and what medicines patients can get would be a disaster for patients.

“While Colorado policymakers are attempting to brand this government board as way to make medicines more affordable, there is no guarantee that the policy would provide any sort of meaningful savings for patients,” said Nick McGee, PhRMA’s senior director of public affairs. “Even more, in practice, this policy could make it more difficult for individuals to access the medicines they need now and in the future and could lead to discrimination against seniors, those with disabilities and the chronically ill.”


Colorado’s county commissions will have guardrails on how they draw commissioner districts under new law

Colorado’s county commissions will have guardrails on how they draw commissioner districts under new law

House Bill 1047, which aims to enhance transparency and create legal guidelines for a process previously left up to counties, was signed by Gov. Jared Polis.

By Thy Vo (May 3, 2021)

A new state law sets new rules for how powerful Colorado county commissions redraw their political boundaries. It currently applies only to three counties, but would apply to counties with growing populations that opt to expand the number of representatives on their commissions.

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed House Bill 1047 into law. The measure borrows rules for congressional and legislative redistricting approved by voters in 2018 under Amendments Y and Z and applies them to counties, said state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who spearheaded the legislation. 

House Bill 1047 allows for, but doesn’t require, the creation of independent panels to conduct the county commission redistricting process. 

The law does require counties to hold public hearings, prohibits improper communications between commissioners and commission staff and requires that paid lobbyists file disclosures. It also specifies the factors that counties must consider in redrawing local boundaries. 

Until now, Colorado had few requirements for how counties conduct redistricting. Proponents of the new law argue it adds transparency to a process that can be vulnerable to political influence. 

The law also adds language requiring that gerrymandering be kept out of the process, and prohibits commissions from approving maps that protect incumbents, candidates or any political party, or which deliberately box out certain communities. Commissions must “to the extent reasonably possible” consider maps that maximize the number of politically competitive districts. 

The legislation applies only to counties with five-member commissions, where some or all members are elected by voters within the district where the candidate resides. Most Colorado counties have commissions with three members who live in their districts but are elected at large. Counties with populations greater than 70,000 can expand their commission boards to five members. 

Only Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld counties are currently covered by the new law, although it sets guidelines for growing counties that may consider expanding their boards in the future, Kennedy said.

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New Bill Would Stop Employers from Dodging Direct Negligence Claims

New Bill Would Stop Employers from Dodging Direct Negligence Claims

Plaintiff’s lawyers say bill will hold corporations accountable while employer-side attorneys raise concerns about increased scope of discovery, litigation

By Jessica Folker (March 15, 2021)

Colorado lawmakers have introduced a bill that proponents say would hold corporations accountable for employee negligence and expose employer wrongdoing,  while defense attorneys warn the bill could increase litigation costs and risks for some companies.

HB21-1188 would allow a plaintiff to bring direct negligence claims against an employer who has already admitted vicarious liability for its employee’s negligence. If passed, the bill would undo the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2017 holding in Ferrer v. Okbamicael, where the court held that an employer’s admission of vicarious liability bars a plaintiff’s direct negligence claims against the employer.

Under the respondeat superior doctrine, an employer can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s negligence as long as the misconduct occurs within the course and scope of the worker’s employment. But the company could also be liable for its own direct negligence, such as negligent supervision, training and hiring or failure to properly maintain a company vehicle.

The Ferrer decision allowed employers to avoid direct negligence claims by admitting vicarious liability. When direct negligence claims are barred, plaintiff’s attorneys can’t take depositions or make other discovery requests regarding the employer’s hiring and training practices, maintenance records or other conduct that might have led to the injury.

“[Ferrer] says once they admit vicarious liability, that’s it. They’re done. You can’t do anything else with the company,” said Michael Nimmo, former president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, which is supporting HB21-1188. “So this bill really is about corporate responsibility.”

“All of this bad conduct that’s out there, potentially, is being hidden from the public, and it’s being hidden from the plaintiff,” said Nimmo, a partner at Denver Trial Lawyers. “We can’t right the wrong from the right people. We can only bring it against the employee and the company for the employee’s conduct rather than the employer’s conduct.”

Defense and employer-side attorneys say the Ferrer ruling has helped to streamline litigation by eliminating the time, costs and complexity associated with discovery.

“…(W)here an employer has conceded it is subject to respondeat superior liability for its employee’s negligence, direct negligence claims against the employer that are nonetheless still tethered to the employee’s negligence become redundant and wasteful,” Justice Monica Márquez wrote in her majority opinion in Ferrer.

“That expansion of discovery puts pressure on the employer to settle the case,” said Evans Fears & Schuttert partner Lee Mickus, who filed an amicus brief in Ferrer on behalf of the Colorado Defense Lawyers Association.

“All that becomes very expensive, and it becomes very disruptive,” he said. “And a lot of small businesses … don’t have the resources to be in a position to manage litigation full time while they’re also trying to run a business full time.”

In addition to increased litigation costs and time, direct negligence claims can also open employers up to reputational risks as potentially embarrassing or damaging information could become public during discovery or trial, said Sterling LeBoeuf, a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs. “It’s one thing to say this one employee messed up on this one occasion. And it’s another thing to have your whole organization opened up for examination,” he said. LeBoeuf added employers could also be hit with higher insurance premiums over time if they face additional liability claims.

According to the attorneys, respondeat superior issues most often arise in the transportation and trucking industry; the Ferrer case involved a cab company whose driver hit a pedestrian. But other industries could fall within the scope of HB21-1188. “In theory it would apply to any situation involving a corporation where an employee is involved or an agent is involved,” said Nimmo, including the medical industry in malpractice cases or a property management company in a premises liability case.

Mickus said vicarious liability can apply in “just about any [industry] with exposure to the road,” which includes restaurants, manufacturing, retail and wholesale businesses that have delivery drivers or move their product. But it can also arise in other situations where an employee is interacting with the public, the attorneys said, such as in the retail and hospitality industries.

HB21-1188 was introduced March 4 and has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. The bill’s prime sponsors are Rep. Chris Kennedy (D-Jefferson County) and Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Denver).

A similar bill was introduced last year but was put on the back burner due to the pandemic. Nimmo said he and other proponents have been working on the bill “for quite some time” to “make it as palatable as possible,” and they have been listening to objections and concerns in order to craft a bill that will get bipartisan support.

According to Nimmo, the bill won’t change the amount a plaintiff is awarded, but it will demand more accountability and transparency from employers. “It doesn’t change the damages,” he said.

“It’s just about holding corporations liable for their own negligent conduct. And if you don’t do that, then what incentive do they have to not be negligent?” Nimmo said. “Because they never have to pay for it. They never have to stand trial for it. It’s never discovered. It’s just in the background, always going on, and nobody knows about it.”

The bill doesn’t allow plaintiffs to recover compensatory or punitive damages more than once for the same injury. But LeBoeuf said direct negligence claims could allow a plaintiff to discover and present evidence of systemic problems in hiring, training or supervising, giving the plaintiff leverage for a bigger settlement or more ammunition if the case proceeds to trial.

“These are the types of arguments that really inflame juries, when they hear about a systemic issue at an employer or at a company,” he said. “And they’re the kinds of arguments and evidence that tend to make juries want to award punitive damages.”


General Assembly Democrats take on prescription drug prices

General Assembly Democrats take on prescription drug prices

By Pat Poblete (March 8, 2021)

Democratic state lawmakers on Monday took aim at prescription drug prices, introducing a measure that would create a board to review the prices of high-cost medications while also passing a bill expanding a drug importation program out of a Senate committee on a party-line vote. 

The latter bill from Sens. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, seeks to expand on a program signed into law in 2019 that would allow Coloradans to import prescription drugs from Canada. The state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing estimates that would give consumers access to medications that would be on average 61% cheaper than in the United States. But that program has yet to be fully implemented in the state with a holdup based largely at the federal level. 

Congress in 2003 approved a proposal allowing certain drugs to be imported from Canada if the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services deemed it could be done safely. Heads of that agency, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, opted against taking that measure but former Secretary Alex Azar, who ran HHS under President Donald Trump, approved a rule on the program in September. President Joe Biden expressed support for the concept on the campaign trail, and his nominee to lead HHS, Xavier Becerra, voted for the Canadian drug importation proposal as a member of Congress in 2003. 

Ginal told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee the bill expanding the program would allow the state to be among the first to reach foreign drug markets should federal law ever allow it. 

The bill faced opposition from a pair of organizations: The Partnership for Safe Medicines, a nonprofit that Kaiser Health News reported has deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry, and the Colorado Pharmacists Society. Both groups raised concerns about the safety of imported drugs. 

But HCPF executive director Kim Bimestefer countered that 80% of active pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturers and 60% of completed drugs already come from outside the country. She said the factories and drugs have already been approved by the FDA, adding “what we’re actually importing is the prices.” 

Coram, meanwhile, closed the hearing by emphasizing that the drugs imported under the program would largely be the same as those already in pharmacies. 

“I find it ironic that some may think that because the drug is manufactured in France and you buy your prescription at your local pharmacy supermarket chain, you pay this price, it’s OK, it’s safe,” he said. 

Still, that didn’t win over any of the panel’s Republicans. Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, said she had concerns over the transparency of the bill’s fiscal note, which would see HCPF draw funds from those allocated in the original Canadian expansion if the federal government enacted a law allowing a drug importation expansion. 

Republican Sens. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa and Jim Smallwood of Parker also voted against the bill as Democrats advanced it to the full Senate. 

Gov. Jared Polis earlier in the day said that bill “is going to be part of the solution” for bringing down prescription drug costs. But he touted another piece of legislation introduced on Monday seeking to create a board to review the cost of the highest-priced prescription drugs as a “better and longer-term solution.” 

That bill, from Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont, and Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, would see a board appointed by the governor research, review and establish payment limits for drugs deemed unaffordable. 

While in the House, Jaquez Lewis sponsored the original Canadian drug importation bill. But she said that measure had drawbacks, including its narrow scope that doesn’t include specialty drugs or biologics. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Yadira Caraveo said she knew from experience “we are well past time needing to bring prescription costs down.” The Thornton Democrat and pediatrician is sponsoring the bill in the House along with Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood. 

“It really is shameful that I have to have conversations in clinic about whether families can afford to pay for prescription medication or put food on the table for their children,” she said.

The measure will likely face opposition from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, last month said while some might appreciate the price controls in the short term, he believed it would have long-term effects on the pharmaceutical industry’s capacity for research and development. 

“If there is a board for Colorado that is controlling prices, I don’t think it would be a surprise if a drug isn’t available in Colorado,” he said at a panel hosted by Colorado Politics before the bill was introduced. “I don’t think over time, it’ll be surprising that people would be leaving Colorado and going to a state where they could access a particular pharmaceutical that they need.” 


Legislature to consider special panel to limit drug costs

By Charles Ashby (March 9, 2021)

Colorado could join a handful of other states that no longer are waiting for the federal government in finding ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Because congressional efforts to negotiate for lower prices on prescription drugs continue to falter, several states have or are considering creating their own Prescription Drug Affordability Boards.

Like many of those other states’ boards, Colorado’s panel would gather a group of experts to investigate drug cost increases, and then set guardrails on prices for the most expensive drugs.

Many of the drugs sold in the United States cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more than the same drugs go for in Canada and the European Union. That’s partly because those nations do what this one doesn’t, negotiate with drug companies, and put limits on what they can charge, sponsors of the bill say.

“It’s just ridiculous what’s going on with this,” said Gov. Jared Polis in announcing introduction of the bill into the Colorado Legislature on Monday. “These are the exact same prescription drugs, and yet they cost far more. American consumers are sick and tired of being ripped off.”

Polis said some Americans, those who are served by the Veteran’s Affairs for example, pay those cheaper costs. Why? Because they negotiate drug costs, the governor said.

The four Democratic sponsors of the bill — Sens. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Lafayette, and Reps. Yadria Caraveo of Thornton and Chris Kennedy of Lakewood — all said that Coloradans, particularly lower income residents, are having to choose from paying their rents and putting food on their tables and paying the high cost of life-saving medications.

“There is no reason why we should be paying more for prescription drugs than consumers in other countries, but we are and it’s not even close,” said Caraveo, a medical doctor. “Physicians like myself make decisions all the time about what is in the best interests for our patients. Drugs only work if my patients can take them. Prescription drugs save lives.”

Four states already have such panels in place, but only within the past year, so it’s not yet known how effective they will be. A dozen other states also are considering similar bills in their legislatures.


House panel approves county commissioner gerrymandering bill along party lines

House panel approves county commissioner gerrymandering bill along party lines

By Pat Poblete (March 4, 2021)

A House panel on Thursday passed on party lines a measure seeking to apply aspects of the congressional and state legislative nonpartisan redistricting plan to districts drawn for some county commissions. 

The proposal from Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, would implement some of the framework from 2018’s amendments Y and Z to county commissioner maps, where commissioners are allowed to draw their own districts. The bill specifically targets the state’s largest counties that have five commissioners: Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld. 

“This will make sure that neither political party is able to hold advantage over these redistricting processes and that it will be done fairly to ensure that the interest of the people are put ahead of the interest of the politicians,” Kennedy said during testimony before the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. 

The proposal  primarily mirrors one that cleared committee but died last session without a floor vote after strong opposition from counties. Counties considered a provision calling for a seven-member independent commission, assisted by nonpartisan staff, to take charge of drawing district maps to be an expensive, unfunded mandate. 

Although Kennedy dropped that provision in this year’s version of the bill – a move he said he was “not that thrilled that I had to give up” – Arapahoe and El Paso counties were again poised to line up in opposition of the bill. Nancy Jackson, a Democrat who chairs the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners, said county legislative bodies are often “pretty nuts and bolts” and not plagued by the partisanship that can grip state legislative and congressional representatives. As such, she said, some of the provisions in this year’s version of the bill felt onerous. 

“Very detailed and time-consuming requirements in the introduced version of House Bill 1047 would be burdensome and time consuming in the best of circumstances,” Jackson said. “2021 is anything but the best of circumstances. Our board has been and continues to be overwhelmed with dealing with the plethora of issues related to the pandemic.” 

But she said recent work with Kennedy moved them to neutral. According to Jackson, that move was down to an amendment Kennedy introduced today, which among other things struck the mandate for judicial review of maps and streamlined the map-drawing process by eliminating some steps required under amendments Y and Z. 

Still, Jackson said she had lingering concerns in three areas: 

  • How to account for the delay in census data to incorporate into the redistricting process. 
  • A provision of the bill that changes how counties could go back from electing commissioners by districts to electing them at-large. She said her board felt that measure was “a vehicle to restrict local control.” 
  • A measure calling for competitive districts as criteria, which Jackson said felt contradictory when paired with provisions requiring other criteria such as population equality, respect for the Voting Rights Act and communities of interest. 

Jackson also provided a letter from the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, who also moved from opposing the bill to neutral after working with Kennedy but still expressed concerns. 

“We still feel that this concept is not the right solution for El Paso County, but we were encouraged by your willingness to consider a list of amendments,” the letter said.

But two El Paso County residents slammed their commissioners’ opposition to the proposal. Stephanie Vigil, a unaffiliated private citizen, said their opposition came down to an effort “to shore up for themselves nothing less than unchecked, unanimous, single-party control” while Mike Maday accused commissioners of “flat-out blatant gerrymandering.” 

Both Vigil and Maday, who serves as the voting protection coordinator for the El Paso County Democratic Party, testified the maps in their county were drawn to disenfranchise Democrats and involved little to no public input. 

“We were presented with three options that the county clerk came up with to comment on — one option was uncompetitive, the other was very uncompetitive, the third was extremely uncompetitive,” Maday said. “We presented our own maps and ideas and they were not presented to the county board for their consideration.” 

Maday said while those districts were uncompetitive, they weren’t illegal as the only legal standard that applied — population equality — was met. 

“We could have sued, but we would have lost,” he said. “I’m not the type of person that wants to go to court a whole lot and just lose things.” 

El Paso County commissioners were not immediately available for comment. 

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the testimony from Maday and Vigil moved him from a “no” to a “no for today.” 

“I’ve heard some concerning things that don’t sit well with me and I’m going to go back to my commissioners and I’m going to ask very direct questions,” he said. “I definitely had an opposition going in, but through the dialogue and the discussion, I want to be a little bit more open-minded about what’s going on because I think you have legitimate concerns and there is merit to what you’re doing.” 

But Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican who previously served with Jackson as an Arapahoe County commissioner, blasted the proposal as “an anti-El Paso County bill.” 

“Until I hear something from, Weld, Arapahoe and El Paso that says that they’re comfortable with this bill, I’ll probably be fighting it the whole way,” he said. 

The bill passed 7-4, with Rep. Ron Hanks, R-Penrose, joining Williams as a “no for today.” 


Ranked-choice voting: Coming soon to more of Colorado’s towns and cities?

Ranked-choice voting: Coming soon to more of Colorado’s towns and cities?

By Alex Burness (January 30, 2021)

Telluride and Basalt do it. Boulder plans to, and Denver may follow. State lawmakers want to make it easier for even more to join in.

Ranked-choice voting already happens in two Colorado towns, and it’s catching on in places like New York City, Maine and Alaska.

This year, Colorado lawmakers are likely to pass a bill designed to make it easier for more local governments to join in.

Advocates say the alternative method of voting limits polarization, thwarts “spoiler” candidates and eliminates the need for costly and time-consuming runoff elections. It can also be quite confusing, and backers and opponents of the upcoming bill alike are nervous about the challenge of educating voters and getting their buy-in.

State Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, will introduce the bill when the legislature reconvenes next month. It would allow towns and cities to run ranked-choice elections — also known as instant runoff — through county clerk’s offices.

Though ranked-choice voting is already allowed at the local level in Colorado, the proposed guidelines for county involvement would be new. The bill would also require the secretary of state’s office to develop rules establishing consistent voting systems and auditing practices that would apply statewide for any town or city that opts in.

How it works

Ranked-choice voting systems differ slightly among the nearly 20 U.S. cities currently using them, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and San Francisco. Boulder is among a batch of other states and cities, like Alaska and New York City, set to adopt the method soon.

It works like this: Voters in contests with three or more candidates — usually city council and mayoral races, plus some statewide primaries — rank candidates by preference. If no candidate secures at least 50% of the vote, “instant runoff” rounds follow, with last-place candidates lopped off until someone secures a majority.

Molly Fitzpatrick, the clerk and recorder in Boulder County, said her office doesn’t have the bandwidth to run a ranked-choice election without state guidance and resources for both voting software and auditing processes.

“It really is beyond the scope of what a single county can do, given that we’re talking about touching the voting system,” she said.

A city charter committee in Denver is also exploring multiple election reforms for the city, including ranked-choice voting, which could end up in front of voters in November.

Lawmakers thus believe there is some urgency to set rules in place, and they expect other towns and cities will want to explore this if and when the bill passes.

The bill is also being looked at as a sort of pilot program to see whether Colorado could take it statewide, according to Kennedy and others interviewed.

“Let’s solve the city problem first,” Kennedy said. “What comes next, we’ll see how it goes. If we find that voters are not confused by this, that they think this works, we’ll talk about it.”

That’s a big “if,” he acknowledged. There’s fear among elected officials about replacing a traditional, straightforward voting method.

“The biggest issue is not a partisan issue. It’s a knowledge-gap issue,” said Terrance Carroll, the former Colorado House speaker who now advocates for ranked-choice voting.

“It adds more civility to elections. You never discount a vote,” Arndt said. “If a voter says, ‘I really like Candidate X,’ you don’t say, ‘Well, screw you,’ and walk away. You ask why, because you want to be their second choice, right?”


COVER STORY | Hot Topics in the 2021 session

By Marianne Goodland (February 21, 2021)

Ranked-choice voting

Expect lawmakers to take up technical tweaks, not total transformation, of Colorado’s election administration system.

Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, says he’s got two election-related bills in the works. The first is a measure that would seek to increase access to ranked-choice voting at the local level.

That system, also known as instant runoff, asks voters in elections with three or more candidates to rank their choices from most to least preferable. If a candidate fails to win at least 50% of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes reallocated to their voters’ second-choice candidate. 

“I just never felt that that was fair,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was a better system to give people a way of prioritizing, because it addresses the spoiler issues and some of the other concerns that come up in those races.”

While cities are already allowed to use ranked-choice voting, only three — Basalt, Carbondale and Telluride — actually do. Kennedy said that’s because locals often rely on their county clerks to administer elections, and county clerks are required under state law to administer standard first-past-the-post elections.

“I’m just trying to clear those roadblocks and make it so that [locals] can meaningfully use the authority that they already have,” Kennedy said.

County commissioner redistricting

Kennedy is also planning to introduce a bill that would largely copy the framework from amendments Y and Z in 2018, which sought to draw fair district maps at the congressional and state legislative levels. Kennedy’s bill would add county commissioner maps into the mix, where commissioners are allowed to draw their own districts.

This year’s bill rolls back the independent map-drawing commissions from a requirement to a recommendation, but otherwise keeps much of the same framework in place. Eric Bergman, the policy director for Colorado Counties Inc., told Colorado Politics dropping the mandate for the commission helps but the bill still feels onerous, because there aren’t widespread complaints about gerrymandering at the county level. Still, he said his organization would continue to work with Kennedy and provide feedback.

The bill as it currently stands would apply only to the state’s largest counties that have five commissioners: Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld. An additional seven — those with populations that exceed 70,000 — could eventually be included, including Boulder, Jefferson and Mesa, if those counties choose to go to five commissioners. They all have three now, but some are considering going to five. The only large counties that would be exempt are Broomfield and Denver, which are city/county governments led by city councils, not county commissions.

Kennedy said he hadn’t started lobbying his colleagues on either of the bills yet but has drafts of both proposals ready to go. He was optimistic both could end up on the governor’s desk.

“I believe in myself, in my ability to do the work and persuade people that this is a good idea,” he said. 


Ranked-choice voting legislation clears committee on party-line vote

By Pat Poblete (February 22, 2021)

A host of advocates, organizations and elected officials past and present testified Monday in support of legislation seeking to increase access to ranked-choice voting at the local level as the bill cleared committee on a party lines.

But while the measure won support from the Colorado Municipal Clerks Association, the League of Women Voters and the Colorado Municipal League, among others, it received strong pushback from El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman.

“As a guide, voting should be easy, clear-cut and assessable as possible and allow the greatest swath of voter participation as possible,” Broerman said. “House Bill 1071 fails to meet that test.”

The ranked-choice voting system as a whole drew widespread support from the witnesses testifying before Kennedy’s panel. But several — including Matt Benjamin, who last year led a successful Boulder charter amendment to use ranked-choice voting in the city’s mayoral election starting in 2023 — said Kennedy’s bill was more broadly about local control.

“Instead of debating the merits of RCV, it should be whether or not we agree as a state, certainly as a committee and a House, whether we support local control and what that means for communities that want to choose their own fate and have the will of the voters decide the outcomes of their elections,” he said. 

Former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, reinforced that point while testifying in support.

“This is what local control is all about,” he said. “Many people like to say that states are the laboratories of democracy — I would say that in Colorado, our municipal governments are laboratories of democracy and they allow us to look at evolving democratic norms to ensure that our democracy is truly representing the will of the people.”

But Broerman highlighted a host of issues, including concerns the system would “increase the prevalence of spoiled or exhausted votes.”

“Understanding the differences in policy between candidates to the point where a voter can meaningfully rank all candidates in order of preference requires a great deal of political savvy and engagement,” he said.

The panel’s Republicans also opposed the bill. Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, slammed it as an attempt to hand off the expenses of Boulder’s move to ranked-choice voting to taxpayers and businesses.

“For years towns like Telluride have been running their elections this way with no help from the state,” he said in a statement. “Boulder should make sure their fiscal house is in order before passing measures instead of coming to businesses across the state to fund their pet projects, especially during a time when many are already struggling with keeping their doors open during the pandemic.”

That’s a reference to testimony from state Election Director Judd Choate, who said the price tag of roughly $1 million for the Secretary of State’s office to implement the necessary changes would largely be covered by raising fees.

Choate said Secretary of State Jena Griswold largely supports the idea of alternative voting methods. But he raised concerns about both the prospect of raising fees on businesses in the middle of a pandemic and the “tight” timeline the original draft of the bill presented.

“If this bill were advanced without amendment to extend the implementation timeline, our office would have roughly 18 months to deliver a substantial multi-component overhaul of our election system,” he said.  “The timeline to do this significant work is exceptionally tight, especially given the need to go through a state procurement processes.”

Kennedy said he wasn’t able to speak with Griswold until last week. After hearing her concerns on the timeline, he today brought forward an amendment he said “split the difference” between her request to push implementation back to 2024 and Boulder’s 2023 election.

“What we thought would make the most sense is try to bifurcate this process so that everything that needs to be done for single county elections will be done ahead of the 2023 election,” he said. “But for any cities that span multiple counties, they’re going to have to wait two more years until 2025 so that we can finish completing these statewide processes.”

Kennedy also said the fiscal note on the bill was designed “to try to take [costs] off the shoulders of the local government.” He said the Finance Committee, where the legislation heads next, will continue to work on the bill and pledge to examine ways to bring the overall cost down.


A bill to make ranked choice voting an easier option for cities passes its first committee test

By Megan Lopez (February 22, 2021)

DENVER — A Colorado House committee has advanced a bill to make it easier for cities and counties to transition to a ranked choice voting system.

Ranked choice, or instant runoff elections, is a system where voters would pick one candidate as their top choice, another as their second, another as their third and so on. When the votes are counted, if no candidate has earned more than 50% of the vote, the candidates with fewest first place votes are removed from the race.

Those ballots then go to whichever candidates the voter ranked as their second choice. If no clear victor comes from those choices, the process repeats itself until someone wins.

House Bill 21-1107 would require the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office to come up with a uniform set of rules for the implementation and certification of this type of voting. The bill does not require cities or counties to take up the voting system.

“It’s the Colorado way. It’s 100% optional. This is opt-in — there is no mandate here. We want to provide the framework for the municipalities who choose through a council vote or a vote of their own people to opt into a voting system,” said Rep. Jeni Ardnt, a bill co-sponsor.

The office would also establish an audit process for it and find a software provider for counties to use to run these elections.

“Cities already are allowed to use ranked choice of voting under current law. The current law is that the county clerks are not allowed to help them with this, and so our bill is basically clearing that barrier so if the city wants to opt in to ranked choice voting, they can do it through their county coordinated election,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, another co-sponsor of the bill.

For now, Ardnt and Kennedy say this is a pilot project to see how this type of system is handled and received on a smaller scale before considering changes for state or federal elections.

“This is more of an opt-in proof of concept before we really go big,” Ardnt said.

During the public testimony phase of the bill’s first hearing, Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver spoke in support of the bill. Voters in Boulder approved of ranked choice voting for their mayor’s race beginning in 2023.

The bill advanced out of committee without any Republican support.

Denver voting changes

While Colorado legislators consider ranked choice voting changes, Denver Elections is also taking a closer look at its voting systems and whether it’s time for an update.

“One of the things we need to address is the fact that Denver’s charter is a little bit antiquated compared to modern election law,” said Paul Lopez, Denver clerk and recorder.

The city is hosting a series of meetings to discuss how to modernize its election charter.

One of the changes Denver is considering is whether to begin the municipal election process a little earlier in order to allow overseas voters more time to review and return their ballots, particularly in runoff elections.

“Our goal is to get something on the November ballot for Denver voters to consider, at the very minimum, allowing us a little bit more time, which would be having the municipal elections start a little bit earlier so that everybody has the same ability to review their ballot and make an educated vote,” Lopez said.

Along with discussing changes to the timing, Denver has also started to take a closer look at alternative voting methods, like ranked choice and approval voting, as options moving forward to gauge public interest.

“At the end of the day, we want to keep voting as easy as possible for voters,” Lopez said.

Denver is hosting a community town hall Wednesday for people to weigh in on the proposed changes, as well as alternative voting methods. The meeting is happening virtually at 6 p.m.

The proposed changes would then appear on the November ballot for Denver voters to have the final say.

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