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It’s hard to understate the significance of the governor’s recent executive order to allow ballot petitioners to collect signatures online and through the mail. (Let’s set aside for a moment that there’s some chance this order won’t stand, since it’s already been challenged in court.)

The order, signed Friday, was a lifeline to campaigns that were facing the nearly impossible, and dangerous, task of collecting more than 100,000 signatures to place their measures on the 2020 ballot. There are no public events taking place these days, and people are less inclined to stop outside of a grocery store to talk to a ballot petitioner — much less to risk infection by touching the petitioner’s pen and pad to sign the thing.

Collecting signatures online and through the mail brings challenges of its own. For one, it’s easier to sway someone through an in-person conversation than through an exchange online. But the online route creates a huge opportunity to connect with people petitioners otherwise wouldn’t reach — and at a lower cost.

Because of this order, you might vote this fall on proposals to raise the nicotine tax and to start a paid family and medical leave program for Colorado workers, among other measures.

You also might be asked to decide the future of income taxation in Colorado. I touched on two proposed tax changes in a recent story and want to briefly highlight this potential showdown today.

One ballot measure, pushed by liberal organizations and politicians, proposes to cut the state income tax for everyone earning less than $250,000 — more than nine in 10 Coloradans — while raising rates on the roughly 5% of Coloradans who make more than that amount per year. This would generate an estimated $2 billion annually for a state that expects to be short by at least that amount for the next couple years, or longer.

The other proposal would lower the income tax rate across the board — everybody gets a cut. It’s backed by conservatives, and it would reduce revenue to the state by an estimated $150 million per year.

This would be a fascinating set of competing proposals in any election, but particularly so this year, given Colorado’s projected shortfall. We’ll see if Gov. Jared Polis’ petitioning lifeline is enough to land either on the ballot.

If both qualify, the result will be hugely consequential.

And speaking of consequential elections, Justin Wingerter goes behind the scenes of Senate race dirt-collecting in this week’s Spot. Saja Hindi previews the back half of the legislative session, which is set to resume Tuesday. And Jon Murray writes about the strange world of retail politics in a pandemic.

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You can send tips, comments and questions to me at aburness@denverpost.com or to the other Post reporters below.


Top Line

Mayor Michael B. Hancock gestures for ...

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, right, gestures to the crowd after delivering a speech during the inauguration ceremony for Denver’s elected and re-elected officials on July 15, 2019. Auditor Tim O’Brien is at far left.

The city of Denver will reform its open-records process after an audit released Thursday found the city was less transparent than neighboring local governments. City offices charge inconsistent fees, do not always fully address requests, and don’t consistently track time and money spent to fulfill them, the audit found. Auditor Tim O’Brien made 14 recommendations to improve the city’s handling of public records, The Post’s Shelly Bradbury reports.

Capitol Diary • By Saja Hindi

The new normal

Next week, state lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol, but it’s going to look very different than when they left in March.

The most obvious changes, of course, will involve masks and social distancing. But they won’t all be mandatory.

New recommendations call for lawmakers, staff members and the public to wear masks, maintain 6 feet of social distancing, wash their hands frequently, and bring their own food and water into the building. Visitors will have their temperatures checked. Anyone with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher will be urged to participate remotely. Temperature readings also may be taken for lawmakers and staff before they enter the chambers.

Because of social-distancing guidelines, the number of people allowed in each gallery to watch floor work will be limited, and even the lawmakers will be sitting in every other seat on the floor. Plexiglass will be installed in the House and Senate chambers.

The changes will also affect legislation. As lawmakers work to finalize the agenda, House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, asked members to keep in mind that their bills should be “fast, friendly and free.”

A lot of bills that the Democratic majority had hoped to pass are now on the back burner, thanks to the budget hit expected from the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers plan to focus their efforts on coronavirus response bills, though Becker said other important bills will get consideration.

The annual budget must be balanced. As Becker points out, it’s not just about making the numbers add up but about policies that lawmakers have worked on for months that they now have to amend.

“That’s been a really big effort the last few weeks and it’s going to be hard to get it passed,” she said.

But with just three weeks scheduled, the task won’t be simple. And House Republicans, at odds with the state’s Democratic elected leaders, are pushing different ideas to address the budget shortfall and to help business owners.

“We’re here because we want to reopen Colorado,” House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said at a news conference this week.

More Colorado political news

#COSen 2020 • By Justin Wingerter

The shadow CORA war

“Looks like you are CORAing the CORA of the CORA,” a Colorado attorney general’s office spokesman told me last week, as I filed a Colorado Open Records Act request. And he was right.

I wanted a glimpse into a small drama that is performed entirely outside the public’s view but can shape the negative ads nearly all voters see. What I found, amid mundane emails, are some realities of elections in 2020: less journalism, more outside money and a tireless search for dirt.

On Jan. 16, Becca Charen sent a CORA request to the attorney general’s office, asking for 20 years’ worth of information about special assistant attorneys general, or SAAGs, and the hourly rate they billed taxpayers. Charen is the research director for Democrat John Hickenlooper’s U.S. Senate campaign, and Hickenlooper was taking flak because his ethics attorney is a highly-paid SAAG.

The Hickenlooper campaign paid $250 for the records about SAAGs and reported that expense on a campaign finance report. Allan Blutstein, a public records expert at the Republican opposition research firm America Rising, then saw that campaign finance report and requested the same documents Charen had requested.

Like that, Republicans knew which data the Hickenlooper campaign might use to defend itself against a possible attack ad.

State and federal open records laws are best known for their use by journalists. But in this age of shrinking newsroom budgets and increased election spending, many of the CORA requests that land in state government inboxes are now sent by political groups conducting opposition research. That is especially true during this year’s expensive and high-profile U.S. Senate race.

Curtis Hubbard is a new player in this CORA drama. He and Rick Palacio, a former Colorado Democratic Party chair, recently founded the Colorado Ethics Institute.

Drawing on Hubbard’s experience with public records — he was a journalist before entering Democratic politics — CEI says it intends to highlight Republican abuses of open records laws and ethics laws, beginning with what Hubbard calls “the partisan hit job” against Hickenlooper: an ethics complaint over private jet flights, which seemingly began with an open records request from America Rising.

“Given my experience and familiarity with CORA, we started backtracking and looking to see, OK, who’s involved here? How did this come to be?” Hubbard says of his research into the Public Trust Institute’s ethics complaint against Hickenlooper.

To recap: PTI, run by Republicans, used open records in 2018 to compile an ethics complaint against Hickenlooper and uses them today to further investigate him. Now CEI, run by Democrats, is using open records to investigate PTI.

Their first findings involve the legislature.

“If we haven’t already,” wrote state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, in an email Dec. 11, “we might make a CORA request of the treasurer’s office to see who certified the payments; see if we can force (Treasurer) Dave Young to tell us what the authority is for this; make the AG get involved in the matter — just get everyone’s fingerprints all over it.”

The email, obtained by CEI, is about payments from a federal fund to Hickenlooper’s ethics attorney, as reported in The Post three weeks before. Gardner sent the email to Frank McNulty, the founder of PTI, and Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican on the Legislative Audit Committee, as the three discussed how to track Hickenlooper’s spending from the fund.

Hubbard sees the email as proof that Republicans wanted to taint Democrats — “get everyone’s fingerprints all over it” — rather than uncover the truth or track government spending. Both the treasurer and the attorney general mentioned in the Gardner email are elected Democrats.

“These records show a highly partisan actor in Frank McNulty coordinating a political hit job with (state) Sen. Bob Gardner and a member of the Audit Committee. They call it their ‘Audit Committee Project,’ and to me, it really shines a light on what’s going on here,” Hubbard said.

(In one email, the subject line is “Audit Committee Project.” The audit committee later rejected, on party-line votes, multiple Republican efforts to audit the federal fund Hickenlooper used.)

“Misappropriation of federal funds is a serious matter,” Gardner said in an interview Wednesday, while explaining his email and his desire for an audit. “As for making inquiries of the treasurer, that’s the office that writes the checks for the state, and the legal counsel for the executive branch is the attorney general. I guess I want to know, are they supporting that (spending) or not supporting that?”

“Bob Gardner is right,” McNulty says. “Coloradans should not pay the legal bills for Hickenlooper’s illegal gifts and his flights on private corporate jets. Hickenlooper is either innocent, or he is guilty of a pattern of accepting illegal gifts. We will have the answer to that question soon, and that’s what matters.”

Hearings in the ethics case are scheduled for June 4 and June 5.

Endorsements: In his bid to take on incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, Hickenlooper was endorsed Monday by the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and Tuesday by the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. On Thursday, he won the backing of Stacey Abrams.

Fellow Democratic contender Andrew Romanoff was endorsed Wednesday by Joe Salazar, leader of the anti-fracking group Colorado Rising, along with Aurora City Council members Juan Marcano and Alison Coombs.

Gardner was endorsed Thursday — before the Democratic nominee has been picked — by the Colorado Springs Gazette.

More federal politics news

Presidential race • By Jon Murray

Targeted campaigning from afar

Jill Biden had a full schedule Tuesday in Colorado that took her on a tour of a northwest Denver Mexican restaurant, into the homes of Latina business leaders and to a discussion with Colorado Springs-area military spouses.

For each installment, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden sat in her basement in Delaware, in front of a white bookcase, glowing lamp, worn football and folded American flag — the makeshift Zoom-call set that her husband also uses for many of his virtual appearances.

Welcome to retail politics during the pandemic.

Normally a presidential candidate’s spouse would have reporters in tow for a string of carefully stage-managed campaign stops. Instead, we sit invisible on the sidelines of a Zoom call, getting a peek into interactions that simultaneously seem more staged and more intimate.

Nobody’s fighting to be heard over a cheering crowd, but the physical separation is impossible to ignore.

“A lot of businesses don’t survive to the second generation, but I hope we survive,” shared Denver restaurateur Paula Sandoval, also a former state senator and city councilwoman, as she used her mobile phone to show off Tamales by La Casita. Biden looked in during a brisk lunch hour for takeout business.

“My hope is that things get as close as they can back to normal,” Biden told her. “… I love that you’re a strong woman and you’ve taken on this — and you’re helping so many people make a living. Thanks for what you’re doing, and I hope you have a lot of success. And I hope that I get to come to your restaurant!”

Mid-afternoon, Biden was joined by U.S. Rep. Jason Crow and U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper for brief remarks and a Q&A with Colorado supporters during a virtual organizing event.

Biden took two questions. One asked what her priorities would be if she became first lady. The other asked if her husband would support replacing the current $600-per-week supplemental federal unemployment checks with a two-year education stipend. Biden was noncommittal.

“What an interesting idea!” she said. “I will surely take this back to the team. We will need lots of thoughtful, creative thinking. Joe currently convenes economists several times a week to discuss ideas.”

Virtual visits already are becoming a defining feature of this year’s campaign, marking one of several ways the candidates are adapting in the pandemic.

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has had longer to build a footprint in Colorado and other states, but instead of door-knocking, its forces are relying these days on phone and text contacts more than ever to fire up Republican voters. Kyle Kohli, the Republican National Committee’s spokesperson for Colorado, said the joint campaign has made 1 million contacts since March, when it shifted entirely to virtual efforts. More than a third of those happened in the last week or so.

More presidential race news

  • The coronavirus pandemic has hindered Joe Biden’s ability to sync messages with other Democrats and given Donald Trump an opportunity to unite his party, Politico reports.
  • Republican candidates won two special elections in congressional districts this month. FiveThirtyEight looks at the mixed signals for November’s election.
  • Biden led Trump in new polls in three battleground states this week, USA Today reports.

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