Littwin: The bomb squad failed
OK, here’s the bad news: The overwhelming defeat of Amendment 66 was not simply an electoral disaster.
It was much worse than that.
And it was not just a setback for Colorado public education, for disadvantaged kids, for underemployed gym teachers.
It was much, much worse than that.
And it wasn’t just a humiliating defeat for Gov. John Hickenlooper, who backed a campaign that would raise more than $10 million — more money than had ever been raised for any Colorado initiative — and still saw it lose by nearly 2-to-1.
Sure, that may sound bad. But, trust me, it’s not even the half of it.
The resounding defeat of 66 is a resounding defeat for arithmetic. We are stuck in a mathematically-challenged hole we dug ourselves 20-odd years ago when the state voted for TABOR. And, over the years, we’ve made it worse until we have finally tied ourselves into the so-called Gordian knot that is TABOR, Gallagher and Amendment 23.
As I wrote the other day, there may be five people in the state who fully understand the knot. And, if we learned anything from the disastrous fall of 66, it’s that the number hasn’t grown at all.
We’re stuck. Or worse. We’re stuck and we don’t know we’re stuck. We voted on an education tax that was only peripherally an education tax. It was also supposed to be a first, critical step in finding a way past our little difficulty.
“The untold story of 66 is that we were going to untie the Gordian knot … and put the state back on the road to fiscal stability,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, who wrote the amendment. “By defeating 66, we have put our foot on the accelerator to drive the state off the cliff of that constitutional crisis, with no brakes and no off-ramps. So we’re going to have to come back at this in some way.”
OK, maybe constitutional crises don’t have cliffs, but you get the idea. This was the vote that would fund schools but that would also try to head off a state funding crisis. And, despite raising $11 million, it still got crushed.
A vote on K-12 would figure to be the easy way to start. A vote, you know, for the kids. Sure, the history on voting for tax hikes in Colorado is not good. But K-12 has to be easier than higher ed. Easier than transportation. Certainly easier than reforming our structural funding issues.
We’re heading toward TABOR caps that will lead to refunding taxpayer money that the state can’t afford to refund. Some communities are heading toward caps on their mill levies, meaning places like Boulder and Littleton won’t be able to raise their own money for education. As Johnston explained to me, Aspen, which has reached its cap, voted for an increased sales tax to pay for education. No one else is going to do that. If most places were even asked, they’d be joining our 51st-state secession movement. (A raise of hands by the way: How many of you care if Yuma County secedes? Anyone?)
So, what happened?
A lot of things happened. The government shutdown happened and the disastrous Obamacare rollout happened, and, in the days leading up to the vote, a lot of people had to wonder whether trusting government — any government — with another billion dollars was such a good idea.
Hickenlooper said that, looking back on the disaster, it’s clear that A66 asked for too much money and that the split income tax hike split the business community.
Some will argue that it was poor strategy to wait until the last month for the major advertising drive. But my trusty election rule book says that the longer you talk about any kind of tax, the more likely it is that people turn against the idea.
And the truth is, there’s little point in deconstructing a 30-point defeat. A 30-point defeat can’t be about strategy. It has to be about something fundamental.
Two years ago Proposition 103 — another failed attempt to raise taxes to pay for education — was seen as underfunded and too vague. So, this time, trying to learn from history, Amendment 66 proponents raised a record amount of money, tried to fix the vagueness issue, and sent Johnston, a former principal and the legislature’s leading education reformer, to make the case.
And the education people got clobbered again.
Losing is one thing. Losing by this kind of margin is shocking. If Hickenlooper and friends had any idea they could possibly lose like this, Amendment 66 would never have made it to the ballot. And now that we’ve seen Amendment 66 go down in flames, it’s hard to see when the next statewide tax hike — one to pay for anything — makes the ballot.
It looked back in 2005 as if we had reached a turning point with Ref C, which called for a five-year timeout on TABOR refunds. Ref C reset the clock — I think that was phrase of the day — on our funding problems. It was backed by Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, and then-Mayor Hickenloooper, still a Democrat. It seemed that TABOR reform was inevitable.
Now, what’s inevitable is that there will be no bipartisan financial reform in the foreseeable future. It’s doubtful that if Owens were governor today, he’d back Amendment 66. But the question is whether there is any kind of tax hike that could get bipartisan support. I doubt Owens would support Ref C today, which wasn’t a tax hike, but did let the state keep tax money. Supporting it would be political suicide.
It’s a different time. And the fact is, few people were motivated to support this tax hike. So, we shouldn’t look for any resets any time soon. It seems we’ve just decided to collectively ignore that loud ticking sound.
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