AURORA | Colorado voters this Election Day will have the chance to decide whether to alter how local officials spend money from federal grants, legal settlements and other sources that don’t stem from state taxes.
Amendment 78 seeks to create a new pot of funding — dubbed the custodial fund transparency account — that would absorb dollars from private donors and federal benefactors and thrust them under the discretion of the state legislature. To spend the money, state lawmakers would have to allocate the funds through a novel hearing process that would include public input.
Currently, these so-called custodial funds, which include gifts to public universities and the billions afforded to the state through the federal CARES Act last year, are handed straight to various state entities like the governor’s office or the state attorney general. The legislature’s powerful joint budget committee doesn’t typically deal with such monies as officials who sit on the panel only handle funds regularly allocated to various state agencies.
Proponents of the measure, namely proxies of the conservative group Colorado Rising State Action, argue that the amendment will enhance overall transparency by drawing more eyeballs to funds that are typically spent at the discretion of a sole governmental agent.
“This ballot initiative will end slush funds for executive branch offices,” Colorado Rising State Action wrote on its Facebook page when the measure was given the green-light for ballot approval in August. “Every dollar Colorado spends should be authorized by your representatives in the state legislature.”
The group shepherded the measure to the ballot via hundreds of thousands of signature petitions earlier this summer.
Opponents, composed mostly of more liberal groups like the Bell Policy Center, have said that the measure would hamstring state government and delay the process of doling out federal dollars when they’re needed most.
“This ballot measure creates an overly simplistic solution that could hinder efficient and timely use of funds, risks over-politicization of ongoing state activities, and reduces the influence of technical expertise,” Bell analysts in their formal position on the measure. “When our budgeting system fails to produce evidence-based, timely solutions, the most marginalized Coloradans suffer and we miss opportunities to make critical long-term investments in public infrastructure.”
The policy group late last month made a last-ditch effort to halt the question from going to voters by asking a Denver judge to throw out the eventual election results. The parties that brought the suit claimed that the measure does not have any direct ties to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which has been a prerequisite for any statewide measure lobbed to voters on odd election years for nearly three decades.
If passed, all money dumped into the new custodial fund would be exempt from TABOR revenue caps. Interest earned on the pot would be slid to the state’s general fund.
State budget analysts have predicted that the measure would hike state spending by about $1 million annually via new staffers needed to oversee the process. And, by virtue of the proposal per se, forecasters have pointed out that the amendment would inherently shift the entire landscape of how money is spent in Colorado.
“Other state spending could be affected if the state legislature makes different spending decisions than would be made by state agencies,” workers in the office of legislative council wrote. “While the purpose of the spending is not altered, the state legislature could fund different programs to implement that purpose.”
The primary group financially supporting the proposal, the committee for spending transparency, had already spent the majority of the nearly $1.3 million raised in favor of the amendment as of Oct. 3, according to campaign finance reports. The next accounting of spending for the group is due to the Secretary of State by Oct. 18.
All of those funds have come from Unite for Colorado, a conservative collective that champions a “smaller, more accountable government,” according to the group’s website.
There is not currently a committee on file with state officials to formally oppose the effort.
Because the measure seeks to change the state constitution, it will require 55% of the vote to pass.