DENVER – Colorado voters this November will see four ballot initiatives that have proponents and opponents readying the war chests for long, expensive fights.
The initiatives include efforts to define personhood for the unborn, open school board collective bargaining negotiations to the public, require labeling for genetically modified foods and expand casino gaming to fund education.
Lawmakers last week finalized the language for a guide that voters will see in the coming weeks that analyzes the initiatives. That guide must hit the mail 30 days before the election.
GMO label controversy
Perhaps the greatest change to the so-called “Blue Book” language concerns the GMO labeling initiative, or Proposition 105, which proposes a statutory change.
The Right to Know initiative would state that beginning in July 2016, food in Colorado with GMOs would be deemed misbranded unless the words “produced with genetic engineering” appear on its label.
GMOs encompass foods produced with organisms that have been altered through various applications.
Lawmakers on Wednesday took issue with language in the Blue Book that would have said that the initiative “could” result in higher food prices. Instead, the Legislative Council Committee voted by a two-thirds majority for language that the initiative “will” result in higher prices.
“It’s my recollection from economics class that all costs have to be passed on in the end to consumers,” said Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. “‘Will’ is solid language in that even if it’s a penny per hundred-thousand consumers increased cost, that still is a cost that will happen and will increase.”
But proponents called the change in language “fear mongering.” Jessica Campbell-Swanson, with RBI Strategies and Research, a firm that is consulting the Right to Know campaign, said the language chosen by lawmakers is “speculation.”
She pointed to opposition from grocery manufacturers, farmers and agrochemical companies like Monsanto. They have formed as the Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative.
“There’s not really a lot in politics that surprises me,” Campbell-Swanson said Wednesday. “Obviously, they hired lobbyists and are doing things to make this as unlikely to happen as possible, and I think today was some of the effects of that.”
Horse track gaming
Lawmakers also expressed concerns about an initiative that would constitutionally expand gaming at Arapahoe Park horse-racing track in Aurora.
The racetrack would pay 34 percent of proceeds from gambling to support public and charter schools. An upfront payment of $25 million also would be paid to the new special education fund.
The initiative also would allow for gaming at one future horse racetrack in Pueblo and Mesa counties after hosting live racing and wagering for five continuous years.
Lawmakers pointed out that the initiative would not give local voters the option to decide if gambling should be authorized in their communities. In 1992, voters passed an initiative that allows a local vote to legalize gambling.
The issue could end up in the courts because home rule also is constitutionally protected.
“I cannot resist the opportunity to point out for about the 90 millionth time that this just brings forward how important it is to not put things in the constitution,” said Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver.
Critics of the initiative – including existing Colorado casino owners – allege ulterior motives, suggesting that an out-of-state casino is interested only in expanding business.
But Monica McCafferty, a spokeswoman for proponents, said residents of Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City, where opponents’ casinos are located, were not given a local vote when the constitutional amendment that established limited gaming in their cities was passed.
“Any expansion of Arapahoe Park horse racetrack will require approval by the local jurisdiction,” McCafferty said. “This includes local zoning and permitting approvals such as land-use and building permits.”
Personhood, open meetings
Lawmakers did not make changes to language in the voter guide for the initiatives surrounding personhood and school board meetings, and there was little discussion.
Proposition 104 would require open meetings for school boards during collective bargaining or employment contract negotiations.
Supporters call it a “good government” transparency tool. But opponents, including the Colorado Education Association, which represents teachers, say the measure would diminish a district’s local control.
The final initiative, Amendment 67, would assign so-called “personhood” to the unborn by adding the words “person” and “child” in state criminal code and the Colorado Wrongful Death Act to include unborn children. Proponents acknowledge that it would ban abortion in Colorado.
But they disagree with concerns that the initiative also would prohibit common forms of birth control and potentially criminalize doctors for providing emergency procedures.
“That needs to be pointed out to the voter so that they don’t have to connect the dots,” said Drew Hymer, a spokesman for Personhood USA. “Women could get life-saving medical treatment.”