Colorado lawmakers’ approval of taxes and other measures to regulate marijuana sales is the latest in a series of moves by the Democratic-controlled legislature splitting cities from rural areas dominated by Republicans.
Widening the rift are the passage of up to a 25 percent tax on recreational pot sales legalized by Colorado voters, a successful Democratic campaign to enact the toughest gun control measures in the state in a decade and a mostly failed attempt to tighten regulations on oil and gas drillers.
On the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate, rural Republicans charged urban Democrats with trying to ram through an agenda tailored to communities hugging the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, known as the Front Range, where almost 75 percent of the state’s population of five million makes its home in eight counties. The rest inhabit 56 counties from peach groves on the Western slope to cattle ranches on the Eastern plains.
“The sentiment I’m getting from people all over rural Colorado is that ‘we used to be free, but now we just keep getting pressed down by people on the Front Range,’” said state Senator Greg Brophy, a Republican from Wray, on the plains near the Nebraska border. “This session has to be characterized as the most extreme overreach witnessed in Colorado.”
Legislation that passed on party-line votes this week, now awaiting Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper’s signature, would require voters to approve new taxes this November to cover the cost of regulating recreational marijuana sales they authorized last fall.
The measure calls for a ballot initiative seeking voter approval for an excise tax of as much as 15 percent on wholesale pot sales and up to a 10 percent tax on retail transactions. The first $40 million in proceeds from the excise levy would fund new school construction, with retail sales taxes paying for regulation.
During debate on the bill, lawmakers expressed concern that if voters don’t agree to tax an industry that’s still considered illegal under federal law, the state will be forced to fund regulatory efforts with taxpayer money.
“The bottom line is this has to pass,” state Senator Matt Jones, a Democrat from Louisville, said during debate on May 7. “We can’t fund regulation on the back of the general fund.”
The split over the new taxes extends to energy, guns and other issues.
Wearing a denim shirt, a five-o’clock shadow and a look of disgust, a man who buys power from an electric cooperative implores Hickenlooper: “Please Stand Up for Rural Colorado.”
The man is pictured in a half-page ad in the Denver Post that asks the first-term Democratic governor, a businessman who previously was mayor of Denver, to veto a bill passed by the state legislature on a party-line vote requiring rural electricity providers to double the amount of power they receive from renewable energy by 2020.
“Across rural Colorado, affordable electricity waters crops, milks cows and lights small towns,” reads the May 5 ad, paid for by the Rural Economic Action Alliance, a group of customer-owned utilities in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming. “But this economic lifeline is under attack by special interests in Denver.”
During the 120-day legislative session, which ended May 8, Democrats also pushed through measures blocked by Republicans in the past including civil unions between gays, rewriting the K-12 school funding formula, in-state college tuition for illegal immigrant students, and an overhaul of the state’s election system that would allow voter registration on Election Day and send mail ballots to all voters.
“It’s an extraordinary laundry list -- on issue after issue after issue these votes tended to be if not complete party line, close to party line,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “The Democrats are in the catbird seat right now.”
A third of the state’s 100 legislators were newly elected this session and half the Democratic contingent were women, who “tended to be more sympathetic” to measures enacted and signed by Hickenlooper in March requiring background checks for all gun sales and limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, said Straayer, one of three authors of “State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-First Century.”
Efforts that redrew boundaries for Colorado’s congressional districts and state legislative seats to better reflect a population shift toward its cities underscored ideological differences among the electorate. The swing state’s shifting political attitudes helped President Barack Obama, a Democrat, defeat Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012.
“We only have two representatives that represent the entire eastern plains,” said state Representative Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling.
“Agriculture is the second largest industry in the state, and out of 65 members in the House I am the only farmer,” said Sonnenberg, who was back on his tractor yesterday readying his fields for wheat and sunflowers. “That presents a huge challenge to agriculture in rural Colorado when it comes to educating our urban cousins on the economic impacts.”
The policy divide extends from Colorado to states nationwide, with many major cities hewing Democratic while their neighbors in remote areas vote Republican.
The trend deepened after the New Deal with a decline in racial segregation as more liberal voters, including Hispanics, moved into suburban areas in places like Denver, said Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford University.
“The correlation between the population density of a county and the voting behavior of a county has been increasing,” Rodden said. “That kind of segmentation is getting more pronounced in every election.”
States surrounding Colorado illustrate the divide, he added, with the policy preferences of liberal lawmakers from Omaha and Lincoln and Topeka and Kansas City differing from their conservative rural colleagues.
Some Colorado Democrats say the urban-versus-rural narrative portrayed by Republicans is based on rhetoric and not fact. They add that they crafted the school-finance reform measure and a bill that would convert a shuttered prison in Fort Lyon to a homeless shelter with needs of sparsely-populated counties in mind.
“Unfortunately, there’s been an effort to pit rural Coloradans against urban Coloradans,” said state Representative Crisanta Duran, a Democrat from Denver who co-sponsored the bill that raises renewable energy quotas for rural electric cooperatives to 20 percent from 10 percent by 2020.
“The renewable energy standard is part of a long-term plan to help diversify rural economies,” she said. “We have incredible potential with solar capabilities and wind capabilities.”
Although they succeeded in passing many controversial bills, Democrats failed to push through a slate of measures that would have placed tighter regulations on the state’s oil and gas industry when several party members sided with Republicans in voting down the bills.
Legislation that proposed increasing fines for violations, bolstering groundwater testing on the Front Range’s Wattenberg Field and revising the charter of the state agency that regulates energy companies to emphasize public health died amid strong opposition from lobbyists and the Hickenlooper administration. Of the 10 oil and gas measures introduced in 2013 only a measure increasing the reporting requirements for spills passed.