Dec. 03--A plurality of Boulder voters say they would support a renewal of the tax that funds the city's now 5-year-old bid to separate from Xcel Energy and form a municipal electric utility, a new Daily Camera poll shows.
The poll, conducted last month for the Camera by Drake Research, also indicates support for municipalization has waned over time, with more voters reporting a change in attitude from "for" to "against" than vice-versa.
And the most ardent supporters of a city-run utility remain young people, renters and low-to-mid-level earners, while older people more tenured in the community and with higher incomes tend to be significantly more skeptical.
Boulder filed its latest utility plan with the state Public Utilities Commission in September and is hoping for a ruling by August, in time to place a renewal of the voter-approved Utility Occupation Tax on the 2017 ballot.
After spending more than $12 million on municipalization since 2011, the city's efforts have been marked more by struggles in court and controversial strategies -- notably, Boulder tried unsuccessfully to include customers and Xcel assets outside city limits, and this fall carried out on unprecedented forced annexation in an effort to bolster its application -- than by meaningful triumphs.
It makes sense, then, that a plan voters very narrowly approved in 2011 would appear less favorable now, after five trying years. If the PUC approves Boulder's application in time for next year's election, the city could see a boost in support on the heels of what would be by far the most significant win of the entire municipalization bid.
But that is far from guaranteed and it is clear, for now at least, that there is no standing community mandate to avoid a settlement with Xcel and push through on its original path. If a renewal of the tax were placed on the ballot today, the election would be an extremely close one, the poll suggests.
Is the plurality enough?
The poll was conducted Nov. 13 through 18, and responses came from more than 400 Boulder voters across demographics representative of the city's overall population.
Forty-eight percent of poll respondents said they'd vote to extend the Utility Occupation Tax in 2017, when it expires, while 34 percent said they'd vote against an extension and 18 percent said they are undecided.
The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.
The 48-percent plurality would seem to suggest a comfortable position for proponents of municipalization heading into a potential ballot question next year. But several pollsters, including the one who conducted the Camera's poll, and election experts interviewed last week said that undecided respondents are disproportionately inclined to ultimately vote against ballot measures.
A look at polling of this year's local and Colorado ballot issues mostly supports this theory.
For example, a Drake Research poll ahead of the election on Boulder County Issue 1A , the road and bridge mill levy increase, polled at 47 percent for, 46 percent against and 7 percent. The issue lost, 46-53.
County Issue 1C, the sustainability sales and use tax extension, saw a similar trend among those undecided ahead of the election; the measure passed easily, 70-30, but the entire 8 percent of previously undecided voters polled by Drake ahead of Election Day voted against the measure.
The same thing happened this year with the statewide "right-to-die" initiative and the Boulder Valley School District's tax increase, among others.
Several other local and state measures either passed much more narrowly than expected or failed altogether after strong poll showing leading up to the election.
Any potential municipalization-inspired tax placed on the 2017 ballot would naturally include a lengthy and likely expensive campaign that could sway voters in any number of directions. In 2011, Xcel spent nearly $1 million campaigning against Boulder.
But municipalization supporters should be even more wary of the undecided group, given that the city's bid is now in its fifth year, and community opinions are thus likely to be more entrenched on this issue than, say, on the soda tax or City Council term limits that just passed in the city -- races for which voters had only a few months for which to prepare.
"You go back to that 48 percent," said Bob Drake, of Drake Research. "That can obviously shift, this far away from next November. But there's less likely to be a major shift if an issue is well known by people.
"People's opinions become anchored over time," added Drake, who has done polls for the city and county governments for more than a decade, "and if they don't have an anchor, then something is causing them angst."
Supporters drop off, opponents gain
That angst is evidenced by respondents' professed attitude shifts.
In 2011, voters very narrowly authorized the City Council to pursue municipalization if a utility could meet certain criteria. Voters that year supported the Utility Occupation Tax by a margin of just 212 votes, out of more than 26,000 cast.
Among respondents to the Camera's poll who said they recalled how they voted in 2011, 11 percent said they voted for the measure then but now lean against it, while only 2 percent said they opposed the measure then but now lean in favor of it.
Overall, many more voters report switching from supporting to opposing municipalization since 2011.
Of poll respondents who remembered voting in the 2011 election, 58 percent said they voted in favor of municipalization then, but only 45 percent would support it now -- a 13-point drop.
On the other side, 42 percent of those respondents who remembered voting in 2011 said they were against municipalization then, but 50 percent would vote against it now -- an 8-point increase.
Multiple elections experts said they chalk those figures up to voter fatigue and doubt. The city is at least about 18 months and up to $214 million away, in theory, from the debut of a municipal electric utility.
Taking on an incumbent monopoly like Xcel was never going to be easy or inexpensive for Boulder, but after years of the waring push -- and much more time and money still needed if a settlement is not reached -- but the numbers suggest voters are losing faith.
While there's evidence that voters may be growing weary of the municipalization effort, the Camera's poll reaffirmed that on the question of whether the city should act urgently to thwart climate change, which is the primary purpose of the utility bid, there is little debate.
A quarter of poll respondents said that achieving the city's climate goals -- 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2050 -- is "very important."
Respondents weren't close to as passionate, the survey showed, about solving issues of affordable housing, which 19 percent called very important; traffic congestion (16 percent); homelessness (14 percent); or job growth (8 percent).
Furthermore, the strong majority of Boulder residents continue to believe that, generally speaking, city policy is sound. When asked whether "things in the city of Boulder are going in the right direction," 59 percent said yes -- which is comparable to majorities responding to the same question at multiple intervals since 1998.
Aside from 2003, when only 37 percent of voters felt the city was going in the right direction, and 2009, when 73 percent of voters felt that way, the city's approval rating has stayed between 51 and 63 percent throughout the last 17 years.
If the Utility Occupation Tax is to be extended next year, several election experts said, the city might be wise to focus its campaign on the link between climate action and the promotion of renewable electricity through a municipal utility.
"It all depends on the language of the ballot initiative," offered David Flaherty, a Republican pollster and campaign consultant who did polling in Boulder ahead of the 2011 Utility Occupation Tax vote.
But, Flaherty and others noted, Boulder will have to do its campaigning ahead of a voting period during which its most loyal supporters -- people age 18 to 44 -- are less likely to vote. It's hard enough to rally young voter turnout during general and midterm elections, and it would be particularly tough in 2017, experts agree.
"The younger people are not going to vote," Flaherty said. "I would look at the numbers at 55 and older and assume they're likely to make up at least two-thirds of the vote. They're the ones who are going to have a lot more weight historically -- and rarely does that change, even with the all-mail ballot."
In 2013, though, a strong push by the group New Era Colorado led to unusually high off-year student turnout for a measure that, while not a true referendum on municipalization, allowed the bid to go on as it had previously. Of course, many of the students who voted in 2011 and 2013 in favor of the city no longer live here.
And if student respondents are removed from the Camera poll, the plurality supporting an extension of the tax has only a four-point lead, 10 fewer than for the plurality among all respondents.
Every age group up to 44 was at least 61-percent supportive of extending the municipalization tax in 2017, while every group 45 and older was no more than 40-percent supportive, the poll showed.
Settlement still possible
But it is possible that no tax extension even appears on a ballot next year. Boulder and Xcel remain in negotiations on a possible settlement that would see the city terminate its municipalization effort, and Xcel retain its local customers. Should that happen, voters could expect to see a new franchise agreement on the 2017 ballot, instead of a tax renewal.
The two sides have been negotiating in confidential sessions, and the City Council has met repeatedly this fall behind closed doors for discussion pertaining to those settlement talks. The past several months of secrecy have left voters less informed, on a day-to-day basis, than ever before regarding a complex campaign.
The Camera's poll showed 45 percent of respondents supporting municipalization and not a settlement, while 37 percent felt the opposite way. Once again, 18 percent of respondents were undecided.
"Engaging in sincere dialogue with Xcel Energy," City Manager Jane Brautigam said when the talks were announced in June, "is consistent with the city's commitment to consider all options for achieving our community's energy goals."
And those goals are clear, as is the community's support for them. More than 4 in 5 residents surveyed believe the city's climate goals are somewhere between "important" and "extremely important," the poll showed.
Far murkier are the questions of whether municipalization is still the city's best path, and whether the gradual crossing-over of supporters to the side of skepticism will hold and present a real threat to a potential 2017 ballot issue.
Alex Burness: 303-473-1389, email@example.com or twitter.com/alex_burness
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