Colorado legislators propose bipartisan ballot measure to repeal Gallagher Amendment

The vision of an empty fire station in Glenwood Springs keeps Fire Chief Gary Tillotson up nights. Should a fire break out or someone need medical aid, help would have to come from further away — meaning much longer response times when people can least afford them.

The vast majority of the fire department’s calls are for medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes, Tillotson said — situations in which the chances of death escalate dramatically if responders don’t arrive within five to seven minutes.

But if the department’s $4 million annual budget dwindles any further, that vision of empty fire stations and delayed response times will become a reality.

The coronavirus pandemic has already meant a costly drop in sales tax revenue for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, and the economic devastation the pandemic is wreaking — combined with a state law called the Gallagher Amendment — means local governments’ property tax revenues will suffer for years to come.

“It’s an insurmountable obstacle,” Tillotson said. “We work on a relatively meager operations budget anyway and with the current devastation to our sales tax, we’re already having to cut back and basically we’re furloughing our firefighters. Any further cuts are going to reduce service.”

Gallagher ties residential property taxes to commercial property taxes, so the pandemic’s extreme impact on Colorado businesses’ bottom lines will result in significant property-tax decreases across the board for years to come, experts expect.

Unless the amendment is removed from the state Constitution.

To head off the upcoming financial crisis, Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, said he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are proposing to repeal the 1982 Gallagher Amendment, which they say has become a twisted version of what was once a good idea.

The measure will be introduced Monday, said Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. It will be followed by a second measure to freeze residential property tax rates for several years.

Lawmakers have wanted to do away with the amendment for decades, but the pandemic has created a new sense of urgency.

“Right now we’re in a moment because of a pandemic, where the economy is hurting and a lot of people are therefore hurting as well,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat who’s chair of the Joint Budget Committee. “If we don’t fix the Gallagher Amendment that hurt can be felt even deeper.”

The amendment’s namesake, Dennis Gallagher, said he’s abstaining from an opinion until he sees the specific proposal. In theory, a repeal makes sense, he said.

“I understand it completely,” he said.

But something must be put in place to maintain the idea behind the amendment, Gallagher added.

What is the Gallagher Amendment?

In short, the Gallagher Amendment is meant to protect homeowners by keeping residential tax rates lower than commercial rates, Gallagher said. Property owners “back east” in New Jersey pay through the nose each month, he said in an interview, and he wanted to prevent that from happening in Colorado.

The amendment categorizes all properties as either residential or commercial and mandates that homeowners pay no more than 45% of the property tax total. Commercial properties are always billed 29% of their building’s value, and the residential rate floats to maintain the 55/45 split.

“It leveled property taxes for residential property owners and ratepayers in Colorado, and it’s been working,” Gallagher said.

What’s the problem?

The issue is that while the commercial property tax rate is constant, the values of commercial properties are not, Tate said. Those properties are largely assessed based on the income of the businesses inside them.

And that income is falling drastically after two to three months of shutdowns and the overall economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Tate said. As income drops, so do property values and commercial tax revenue.

To maintain the legally required 45/55 ratio, residential property tax rates will also have to drop.

Estimates from the state’s property tax administrator show that residential rates could drop from the current 7.15% to 5.88%, spelling a $491 million cut for school districts statewide and a $204 million cut for county governments, as Chalkbeat reported.

“The impact on schools is going to be brutal if we don’t repeal Gallagher,” Hansen said. “Massive.”

And that lost revenue will stay lost, Esgar said. While the Gallagher Amendment allows residential rates to float up and down as needed, a second amendment passed in 1992, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, prevents the taxes from rising again, she said.

“If we get rid of Gallagher before the residential assessment rate drops, we can at least maintain where it is right now,” Esgar said. Otherwise, “we’ll never be able to get back to where we are now.”

Repealing the amendment would prevent residential property taxes from falling in conjunction with commercial rates, but it wouldn’t raise rates for homeowners, Esgar said.

“We’re not raising your taxes,” she said. “We can’t.”

If Gallagher isn’t repealed, fire departments across the state will lose a substantial amount of cash. Already the Glenwood Springs department’s 28 full-time employees face staggered furloughs, but another hit to the budget would mean fire stations would go unstaffed, Tillotson said. Emergency calls would be answered by other stations across town or from neighboring departments dealing with their own budget shortfalls.

“Some of those are a 10- or 20-minute drive away,” he said. “If you’re having a heart attack, you don’t want that to happen.”

The same goes for house fires, he said.

“The size of a fire escalates exponentially for every minute that we’re not there,” he said. “We work really, really hard to build fire stations and staff them within five miles of our major populations. So when one of those stations closes and now we’re eight or 10 miles to the nearest staffed fire station, that exponentially affects the response time.”

The amendment already has been particularly problematic for Western Slope communities, where property values haven’t risen as high or as fast as those on the Front Range.

But the pandemic has touched every corner of the state, and revenue drops would hit every agency that depends on property taxes — hospitals, libraries, ambulance services, cities and state government, in addition to schools and fire departments.

“This is community-level impact that we’re talking about,” Esgar said.

The legislature can address the problem putting a measure on the fall ballot asking voters to repeal the amendment, she said.  It will be difficult, she acknowledged. Both chambers of the legislature must approve the measure with a two-thirds majority. But she and Tate said they believe the support is there.

Then the measure would only need a simple majority from voters for passage, Hansen said.

The effort is sure to face opposition, although none has announced itself so far.

“We are studying it,” said Jon Caldera, president of the conservative Independence Institute and a frequent opponent of tax changes.

But if there’s strong bipartisan support in the legislature, Hansen said, that should help in November.

Tillotson said education will be key in the push to repeal the amendment, and representatives of libraries, fire departments, schools and other affected agencies will be happy to do the educating.

“Gallagher’s been on the books for a very long time, and as homeowners that’s a tough sell,” he said.

It’s a tradeoff, Tillotson said. Repeal would mean that property taxes remain where they are, but then so, too, would the firefighters in Glenwood Springs’ fire stations.

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Kafer: Colorado legislature has a bipartisan opportunity to protect free speech

As one of nearly 500 volunteers who collected signatures over the past two weeks, I had the experience of asking perfect strangers for their John Hancock. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds; most happily took the pen and signed. Democrats and Republicans, unaffiliated voters, lifelong prolifers and prochoicers who want limits, suburbanites, urbanites, and small town denizens signed the petition to place an initiative on the ballot to prohibit abortion after 22 weeks gestation except if needed to save the life of the mother. On Friday, proponents of Initiative 120 turned into the Secretary of State five times the number of additional signatures needed for
the initiative to qualify for the November ballot.

The positive experience of collecting signatures notwithstanding, volunteers did run into unanticipated difficulties. The pandemic and related social distancing measures didn’t make signature gathering easy. Worse, some signature gatherers were harassed while engaging in this legal and constitutionally-protected activity. I’m not talking about the occasional nasty comment hurled at volunteers, but the act of denying volunteers space to gather signatures.

In addition to public areas such as sidewalks and parks, volunteers have the right to solicit petition signatures in common areas on commercial property subject to time, place, and manner restrictions under the Colorado Supreme Court precedent Bock v Westminster Mall Co. The right to petition the government and the right to free speech are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 10 of the Colorado Constitution also protects free speech and “provides greater protection of free speech than does the First Amendment” according to the Colorado Supreme Court.

In Bock v Westminster Mall Co, volunteers with The Pledge of Resistance, a group opposing U.S. military involvement in Central America, were soliciting signatures from people willing to commit civil disobedience should the U.S. escalate military action in Nicaragua or El Salvador. It was 1985, the height of the Cold War, and the mall denied them permission to pass out literature and solicit pledge signatures. The American Civil Liberties Union defended their rights before the courts and ultimately won.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Pledge of Resistance volunteers had a right to conduct free speech activities in the mall for two reasons. Spaces outside of businesses have become the new town center where people congregate. Indoor and strip malls provide space for a variety of non-commercial activities such as Girl Scout cookie sales, Salvation Army bell ringers, voter registration efforts, and other activities. They have become public spaces. Secondly, many malls, big box stores, and grocery stores have some public involvement. They
lease their parking lots from a municipality or have some preferential tax, finance, or security arrangement with the city. That public-private partnership comes with a responsibility to the public. “Where governmental entities or public monies are shown by the facts to subsidize, approve of, or encourage private interests and such private interests happen also to restrict the liberty to speak and to dissent, this court may find that such private restrictions run afoul of the protective scope of Article II, Section 10.,” wrote Justice Mullarkey in the decision.

Thus petitioners on such property can be asked to locate to a reasonable area but they cannot be told to leave. Unfortunately, some store managers may be unaware of or confused about this important legal precedent. Others may be willing to discriminate based on their own political leanings or pressure from outside groups. During the brief legislative session, lawmakers have an opportunity to ensure this doesn’t happen again. They should codify the court’s decision in Bock v Westminster Mall Co in statute to ensure space for peaceful free speech activities. Businesses that enjoy public benefits (e.g., tax finance, security, or lease agreements) and/or provide a common space for other free speech activities cannot deny signature gathering on the property, subject to reasonable time, manner, and place restrictions.

The right to free speech and to peacefully gather signatures for a ballot initiative or a pledge benefits all Americans regardless of ideology or political persuasion.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer

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Colorado Memorial Day weekend weather

Many Coloradans look forward to a long Memorial Day weekend outdoors. While some mountain communities still have pandemic restrictions in place, Mother Nature could also get in the way this year.

The good news: No widespread washouts are expected. The bad news: there will still be some scattered showers and storms to contend with this weekend, especially on Sunday.

The other big concern for this weekend will be the potential for increased fire danger, especially across southern Colorado. Warmer temperatures and gusty winds combined with a growing drought could set the stage for dangerous fire weather in parts of the state. That’ll be perhaps a heightened concern on Friday and Saturday, again, mainly for southern Colorado.

But as far as the forecast itself, the weekend should start off pleasantly. Friday looks to be a dry day across Colorado, and it should be mild as well. Highs will rise well into the 60s and 70s even in the mountains, and highs along the Front Range should eclipse 80.

On Saturday, though, the first hints of trouble will start to move in. Temperatures will slide 3-5 degrees from Friday’s readings for most of Colorado, and it’ll also be a tick cloudier than Friday, especially north of Interstate 70. In northern Colorado, an isolated shower or storm could be in play, although most of the state should remain dry.

The best chances for showers and storms – and perhaps even some high-elevation snow – will come on Sunday. A storm system moving in from the north will pull in both cooler and more unsettled weather by the back half of the weekend. In general, areas along and north of Interstate 70 will have the best chances for rain or snow. But, most areas will have to contend with at least a chance for afternoon storms, including the Front Range.

By Memorial Day warmer temperatures and sunnier weather should both be back in the picture across most of the state. There will be a few isolated afternoon showers and storms, though, mainly along the eastern plains.

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Colorado will be home to U.S. Space Command HQ for at least 6 years

Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs has been named the provisional headquarters of the U.S. Space Command for at least the next six years, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and Gov. Jared Polis said in separate statements Friday.

“In Colorado we are proud to play a pivotal role in our national defense and military space operations, which is why I pushed the Department of Defense to reestablish the U.S. Space Command here in our state,” said Gardner, a Yuma Republican up for re-election this year. “Today’s announcement is historic for Colorado and the future of U.S. military operations in space.”

Polis also celebrated the announcement.

“This is great news for our state and I will continue urging the President and the Air Force to make Colorado the permanent home of U.S. Space Command,” Polis said. “Colorado is home to a proud military community, a critical aerospace industry, an educated workforce, and prestigious research institutions so we are the natural and best home for U.S. Space Command.”

The decision will be final in January, Polis said.

The governor was in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to talk to President Trump about federal resources and money to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Polis met with Trump in February to advocate for making Colorado home to the Space Command.

In August, the Pentagon named Peterson Air Force Base as the temporary location of the command. The other Colorado sites that were in the running for its permanent home were Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Trump authorized the creation of the U.S. Space Command, citing the need for a centralized unit to protect American interests in what he says is “the next war-fighting domain.”

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Colorado man wins two $1M jackpots by playing same lottery numbers

A Colorado man known only as “Joe B.” is about to start living his best quarantine life, after winning two $1-million prizes in the lottery.

The resident of Pueblo, Colo., claimed his twin prizes in the Powerball lottery on Monday, after somehow waiting a month before presenting the tickets.

Joe bought several tickets in the Powerball lottery on March 25 at two different locations, according to a statement from the Colorado Lottery. He played his own string of numbers once at each store, and those numbers happened to be the winners for the Powerball’s US$1-million prize.

“Can you believe what amazing luck!” the Colorado Lottery wrote in its statement.

Joe’s winning ticket shows his twice-lucky numbers at the top of both entries: 5-9-27-39-42. He bought one in the morning and the other in the evening, the tickets show.

Joe showed up at the lottery office on Monday to claim his prize via the drive-thru window, which the Colorado Lottery opened due to the threat of the coronavirus.

The Colorado Lottery didn’t release Joe’s last name or age, but it sounds like the newly-minted multi-millionaire already has someone in his life to spend the money on.

When asked what he’ll do with his millions, Joe told a lottery staffer: “The boss has plans for it.”

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Colorado Bankers Association to consumers: Don’t hoard your cash

Coloradans have stocked up on food and toilet paper as they hunker down to avoid the novel coronavirus, but they shouldn’t do the same with cash, the Colorado Bankers Association is urging.

“When a crisis occurs, every consumer should know their bank is prepared, their deposits are safe and they will have continued access to their funds,” said CBA president Jennifer Waller, in a media advisory on Wednesday. “Banks have more than enough resources to go around.”

Colorado consumers aren’t draining banks and ATMs of cash, said CBA spokeswoman Amanda Averch.But last week, some New York City banks were nearly drained of $100 bills, although not smaller denominations. The CBA is trying to get ahead of what may become a stronger urge to build up cash in hand as the stock market craters and movements become more restricted by asking people now to avoid making any large and unnecessary withdrawals.

“As the nation’s central bank, a part of the Federal Reserve’s normal operating procedures is to have adequate reserves of currency on hand to meet the needs of financial institutions. This is an important way that we continue support both local communities and the national economy,” said Nick Sly, Denver Branch Executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The FDIC also weighed in on Wednesday, reminding bank customers that no insured account has lost money since it was created in response to the devastating bank runs that took place during the Great Depression.

“Since 1933, no depositor has ever lost a penny of FDIC-insured funds. Today, the FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor per FDIC-insured bank. An FDIC-insured account is the safest place for consumers to keep their money,” the FDIC said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

Ahead of what many feared would be a Y2K meltdown that crashed the banking system, consumers stockpiled cash in late 1999 and the Federal Reserve Bank established large currency depots to replenish the system just in case. Some people also pulled out cash following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, when the whole financial system was teetering.

But there’s a problem with holding extra cash this time around that didn’t exist in those other crises. Currency and coins could bring the cornavirus right into wallets, purses and hands of people stockpiling. A single dollar bill can be home to as many as 3,000 different pathogens and may have changed hands upward of thousands of times, the CBA warned.

Nick Maynard, analyst at Juniper Research, told ATM Marketplace that in China and South Korea consumers were trying to disinfect their money, and some even ended up burning bills in an attempt to avoid the virus.

Banks and credit unions struggle with the notion that they may be contributing to the spread of the virus and are urging consumers to use credit and debit cards, which the CBA said can be “easily sanitized using alcohol-based antibacterial wipes or a wet, soapy cloth.”

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