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Confusion Among Voters As Energy Ballot Initiative Deadline Looms

Grace Hood
Jessica Cerise collects signatures for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy on the 16th Street Mall in Denver.

Summer isn’t the only thing heating up Denver’s 16th Street Mall this July. Pedestrians and workers are seeing more activity as advocates gather signatures for energy-related ballot issues.

A few of these proposals restrict oil and gas drilling, while others support it. With their contradictory messages  – including sometimes inaccurate talking points from both sides – some Colorado voters say they are getting confused.

Last week, Veronica Canto of Denver said she was approached three times in one day. Sitting in the shade and neatly dressed, Canto works in the education field. She said she hasn’t spent much time thinking about oil and gas development.

“The only reason I thought about fracking today for like the two minutes after they left was because they asked me,” she said. “And it’s more, wow, three people have come up to me in the 3 hours that I have been here. That’s more in my head than the actual issue.”

There are currently groups with two ballot initiatives seeking local control over development. Industry-backed groups are on the other side with two potential measures.

"...the wording they're using, and the different components of these issues, they blend because the same difficult wording is being used."

Colorado State University Associate Political Science Professor Kyle Saunders says the heavy push for persuasion right now can confound the average voter.

“You have both sides trying to persuade, and also putting out their talking points, spending lots of money trying to persuade the electorate,” said Saunders. “At the end of the day, it muddies the issue.”

In order to find out how signature gatherers were presenting the issues, KUNC shadowed two groups on both sides of the issue on Denver’s 16th Street Mall.

Initiatives 88 & 89

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy is a group backed by Democratic Representative Jared Polis.

It’s promoting two local control initiatives. Measure 88 would increase the minimum setback for drilling near residential areas from 500 to 2,000 feet. Initiative 89 would add a so-called Environmental Bill of Rights to the state constitution, allowing communities to pass laws that are more protective compared to state laws. Signature Gatherer Jessica Cerise explains:

“For example, there are a few cities and counties across the state that are voting to ban fracking,” she said.

“Well the state of Colorado is in turn suing them so that they would drop moratoriums. This would give them protection from those lawsuits.”

In fact, the state is only suing Longmont. It's the industry-backed group Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) that has sued Fort Collins, Lafayette and Longmont.

Denver resident Patrick Klimper signed for both the Environmental Bill of Rights and increasing setbacks. He said he’s spent time thinking about the issues, wading through TV ads and magazine articles.

“You have to search for the truth. There’s a bit of truth in every ad,” said Klimper. “You just have to figure out how much BS is in that, you know? You have to do your research.”

Initiatives 121 & 137

Just blocks away, Telbe Storbeck gathered signatures for two potential ballot initiatives at the real estate firm Cassidy Turley. Initiative 121—backed by Republican State Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg and Protecting Colorado—would prevent communities that put restrictions on oil and gas development or fracking from accepting oil and gas tax dollars collected in Colorado.

“The second one is 137,” Storbeck said. “It requires that if a city and or county would want to do a ban and/or moratorium on their ballot, it would require that there is a fiscal impact statement on there listing the lost revenue that would come from that.”

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
A worker at the real estate firm Cassidy Turley signs a ballot initiative on July 10, 2014.

It’s actually a little more stringent than that. If it passed, 137 would require all future statewide ballot measuresto conduct fiscal impact statements, determining effects on state and local revenues.

Managing Director and Adams County Planning Commissioner Steward Mosko said he’s very familiar with both topics, and signed both initiatives.

“We’re as close to being activists in these types of things as possible,” he said. “We have to be because it affects our livelihood.”

Each group has until August 4 to turn in 86,105 valid signatures to the Secretary of State’s office to get on the November ballot. Industry supporters Protecting Colorado reports gathering more than 60,000 signatures for each initiative. Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy says it’s gathered more than 40,000 for each initiative.

On July 14, Colorado Community Rights Network pulled its ballot issue that would have granted communities broad powers over oil and gas development. The group told the Denver Post it wasn’t gathering enough signatures to make the Aug. 4 deadline.

Meantime, Veronica Canto said she didn’t sign the ballot initiatives. She said she was approached last month by signature gatherers and couldn’t remember if she signed anything. 

“I’m definitely an educated person. Some of the wording they’re using, and the different components of these issues, they blend because the same difficult wording is being used,” she said. “So I would say even reading the information they had and having them speak to me—they’re both just as confusing.”

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