Marijuana dominates short list of Colorado ballot measures

Colorado is known for ballots packed with constitutional amendments and voter initiatives. But this year, voters in the state will see a relatively lean ballot. A marijuana-legalization question is one of only three this year, and the other two have attracted little interest. One is a campaign-finance question with no force of law, and the other is a revision to little-understood protections for state employees. The light ballot is unusual for a state where it’s easy to petition onto ballots — and is giving marijuana an outsize role this political season. Colorado has no governor or U.S. Senate contest to compete with the presidential contest, making pot one of the best-known questions before voters next month.

Approval of the pot measure would be one of the top stories in the nation once the presidential contest is decided. That energizes legalization supporters, but it’s also steeling opponents who worry about Colorado’s reputation. “To have the right to get high, in our constitution, next to the freedom of religion … I think is offensive to my civic sensibilities,” said Happy Haynes, a former Denver city councilwoman. Haynes argued in a recent debate against legalization proponent Betty Aldworth that Colorado shouldn’t be the first state to completely flout federal drug law by allowing marijuana use without a doctor’s recommendation. “This notion of being first in the battle for people to be high is not a first that I would take pride in,” Haynes said.

Marijuana activists counter the federal government won’t act unless urged on by the states. Oregon and Washington also consider pot-legalization questions this year. “The federal government is not going to make any change to this without pressure from the states,” Aldworth argued. Colorado voters rejected a similar measure in 2006. California voters did the same in 2010. But polls indicate this year’s Colorado measure has a shot. An early October poll conducted for the University of Denver showed 50 percent in favor, 40 percent against and 10 percent unsure. Pro-pot ads show a map of the nation with money signs floating from Colorado south to Mexico.

“We all know where the money from nonmedical marijuana sales is currently going,” the announcer says. The measure would direct state lawmakers to forward to voters a possible excise tax on pot. Opponents have less money, so they’re making personal appeals. They include Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck. Voters also will decide whether to approve complicated changes to how the state hires and fires employees. Existing rules were adopted during the Progressive Era, and proponents, including Hickenlooper, say they are inefficient.

The state’s largest employees union, Colorado WINS, is neutral on the proposal. Some members, though, argue pay raises would help more than personnel reforms. “While many of us share the governor’s desire to modernize the state personnel system, we also believe that competitive pay and fair working conditions are essential to attracting and retaining a talented workforce,” WINS member Rita Uhler wrote in a recent opinion piece for The Denver Post.

The final ballot measure concerns campaign finance. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations and unions may spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns. The ballot question asks if Colorado’s congressional delegation should be urged to support a change to the federal Constitution to limit campaign spending. Such a decision can’t be made on a state level, so approval or rejection of the measure has no force of law. Voters are also looking at the usual slate of local funding questions.

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