Activists will take another crack at passing the Colorado Community Rights Amendment, a proposed ballot initiative designed to give localities a veto over corporate activity, starting with the oil and gas industry.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because a virtually identical measure, also sponsored by Coloradans for Community Rights, failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot last year. Even so, organizers say they are optimistic about their chances of bringing the measure before voters in November 2016.
For one, it looks like the group won’t face competition from U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who has shown little interest in sponsoring another anti-fracking initiative in the wake of last year’s blow-up with fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper.
For another, advocates say their timing is better. Last year’s proposed initiative got a late start, then stalled in court after a lawsuit was filed by the Colorado Mining Association. That left organizers, led by the CCR’s Cliff Willmeng and an all-volunteer force, with only nine weeks to meet the petition deadline.
“Last time we tried this — and we may be trying it 10 times, you never know — last time we had nine weeks to collect close to 100,000 signatures by the time the ballot initiative went through the Colorado Supreme Court,” said Merrily Mazza, a Lafayette city councilor and Willmeng’s mother.
“So by the time all that got through the Supreme Court and they made the language was sufficient, it was ready to go, we only had nine weeks, so we actually ran out of time,” said Mazza.
She and four other organizers held a press conference Monday at Denver Open Media to unveil the campaign shortly after submitting the language to the state Legislative Council.
Then there’s the message. Even though the ballot language is the same but for one tweak — the word “natural” was added before “persons” in order to rule out the possibility that corporations might be viewed as persons — organizers are moving to broaden their appeal beyond the anti-fracking movement.
The initiative has been endorsed by 15 Now Colorado, part of a national union-backed movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which could bring out volunteers who aren’t affiliated with the anti-fracking movement to the petition drive.
“This amendment isn’t just about fracking. This is about changing the nature of democratic decision-making in the state,” said organizer Anthony Maine.
The proposed state constitutional amendment establishes “rights of natural persons, their local communities, and nature,” and gives them the right to supersede the competing rights of “corporations and other business entities operating, or seeking to operate, in the community.”
“Our Community Rights Amendment is the only ballot initiative that is led by grassroots actions of Colorado community members; won’t be bargained away in a bait-and-switch compromise with industry and politicians, and views the state corporate control as a violation of people’s democratic rights and addresses the problem directly through that lens,” said Mazza. “This initiative is democracy in action.”
Economic development groups quickly denounced the proposal as an unconstitutional attack on private property rights.
“Many of our community leaders are also small business owners who strive to provide jobs and wages that support local families,” said Bob Golden, president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and a board member of Vital for Colorado.
“Yet this shortsighted initiative could close those businesses who get on the wrong side of city council members and turn our planning commissions into mob rule,” he said.
Former Attorney General John Suthers said the measure would “trample the constitutional rights of law-abiding local business owners.”
The proposal would be “a giant step backwards for Colorado,” said Jeff Wasden, Colorado Business Roundtable president and Vital for Colorado board member.
“This anti-business proposal would allow rogue government bureaucrats to potentially shutter law-abiding businesses and even make it legal for politicians to seek political reprisal against businesses that do not align with the agency’s agendas,” he said.
Another hurdle for organizers is the lack of financial support for the initiative. Unlike Polis, a multi-millionaire who could fund his own campaign, Coloradans for Community Rights has shown little ability to raise the kind of money typically needed to qualify measures for the ballot.
At the press conference, organizers said they would once again use volunteers to collect signatures but added they would be receptive to anyone interested in funding their campaign, including progressive billionaire George Soros.
“It’d be wonderful if we could get George Soros to put down $10 million so we could put up some counteracting commercials on,” said Maine. “That’s a dream come true. But we have to do with what we have.”
Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy joined two years ago to launch Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, an education and public-relations campaign extolling the economic benefits of fracking while touting the procedure’s health and safety record.
The campaign was aimed at countering a wave of anti-fracking fervor in 2012 and 2013, which culminated in votes in five cities along the Front Range — Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Longmont — to limit hydraulic fracturing. Those measures have since suffered a series of defeats in court.
Since then, no community has passed an anti-fracking measure, and Loveland voters defeated a proposed two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in June 2014.
Maine said he expects signature gathering to begin shortly after the initiative language is approved, which he pegs at early 2016. The group’s goal is to gather 125,000 signatures, well above the roughly 100,000 require to make the ballot.
“This time, the language is nearly identical to what we submitted last time, so it’s our expectation that the legal hurdles would be lower,” said Maine. “But who knows what they’ll throw at us?”