Colorado’s Prop 103 called national barometer on taxes

State Senator Rollie Heath’s Proposition 103, which asks Coloradans to approve a tax increase to bolster the state’s cash-strapped schools, will be the most significant tax measure to appear before any U.S. voters this year. The Pew Center on the States calls the vote a test of public attitudes toward tough recession-year fiscal choices and for that reason will draw scrutiny in capitals coast to coast.

The specter of a proposal like 103 has been stalking the state for years and, despite the recession and heavy opposition on all sides, Heath decided now was the time to invite it out of the shadows.

Relative to other states, Colorado is wealthy but its spending on education is low. What’s more, lawmakers here as elsewhere over the past few recession-wracked years have drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the education budget to fill holes in programs paid for through the state’s general fund.

If passed, Proposition 103 would put in place a five-year plan to generate $2.9 billion. It would return Colorado to the tax rates in place before 1999 by hiking sales tax from 4.63 percent to 5 percent and income tax from 2.9 percent to 3 percent.

Heath, a successful entrepreneur from Boulder, argues that the best investment the state can make in its economy is education. He thinks Coloradans will agree with him that the increases amount to small individual contributions that will pay long-term dividends in attracting business and creating jobs. Opponents of the measure have said the recession is the worst time to raise taxes and will force businesses to layoff employees.

As the Pew Center news website Stateline notes, Colorado’s Prop 103 “foreshadows tax-related ballot measures expected to come up in several states next year,” including Arizona, Arkansas, South Dakota and Idaho.

Debate around the proposal also echoes the national debates defining 2012 election campaigns, where Democrats call on more public-sector investment to create jobs during the recession and Republicans decry taxes and public-sector spending as “job killers.”

Wary political leaders in Colorado have steered clear of endorsing Heath’s proposal. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, for example, is neither supporting nor opposing 103.

Yet, polling suggests (pdf) Coloradans are evenly split on Prop 103, which Heath takes as a good sign.

“We’re the only state that’s asking voters if they’re willing to step up and support a tax increase, in this case to support our education system,” he told Stateline. “It will be very telling to the rest of the country about how people are feeling.”

Many voters here have already mailed in their ballots. Election Day is Tuesday.