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.

[pullquote]There may be five people who fully understand the fiscal knot tied around the state budget. And, if we learned anything from the disastrous fall of 66, it’s that the number hasn’t grown at all.[/pullquote]

“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.


  1. Really Mike Littwin? You’re complaining that voters don’t know math because they won’t throw money at the same problem that liberal haven’t been able to solve by throwing more money at it? (the money would have gone to teachers’ unions, not into the classroom.) Typical of smug, arrogant liberals to think they’re smarter than everyone else because the people whom they wish to bully into submission will not be bullied. You really ought to be ashamed.

  2. Mike:
    One of the problems I have with 66 is that it was worded so all the money could have been diverted to the teachers pension funds.
    The other was that there weren’t any real reforms. The reform was just throwing money at the teachers. I saw that Milwaukee Ws. has the lowest rated public school system in the country, yet they spend the 4th highest per pupil in the country. The one reform, Commoncore was brought out with more secrecy than the NSA. If it wasn’t for the caturwalling (spel chek?)of that idiot Glenn Beck most parents wouldn’t even know it exists. And It’s even against the law for the teachers to release to the public the ciriculum (spel chek again). The release and the implementation of commoncore was handled badly and in way too much secrecy.
    Thanx for you time.

  3. There is no Gordian knot.

    Ref C forever removed the ratchet, the best part of Tabor. The only part that reduced government.

    Why must government grow quicker than personal wealth?

    Why cant government learn to do more with the same?

    What about the pot tax, is this not enough for you?

  4. The constitutional amendment was a deal-breaker for me. Fact is, there were a number of unanswered questions. And if there turned out to be unanticipated consequences, there simply would be no recourse. We have seen unanticipated consequences with respect to Amendment 23 and with the Gallagher Amendment, and we have had little-to-no recourse while they enjoy a stranglehold on our state budget. What I would like to know, from a proponent of 66, is why they felt it necessary to write this into the state constitution?

  5. Here is the simple solution, Mr. Littwin: Reduce government spending. I know it is “unthinkable” to folks like you but that is the message from 2/3rds of the voters in Colorado. Reduce it and don’t take it away from classrooms. Take it from school admin staff (curriculum coordinators?, sports programs?) Take it away from the Governor’s voluminous staff. Take it from the bloated CSP. Take it from the CBI. Take it from the mass of government officials that the State sends out to harass its citizens. Take it from somewhere, but for the love of goodness reduce government spending.

  6. Rob, that’s a good question, which I never thought to ask. As you may recall, I was on “haitus” when this stuff was being put together. I will follow up on that, though.

  7. Rob (and Mike) – The reason they felt the need to put it in a constitutional amendment was because that would be the only means by which it could later be changed. Without a subsequent vote on an amendment the legislature would not be able to lower this tax in the future. It was an overreach and they (properly) got their hands smacked.

  8. I have to agree with Rob. The Constitutional amendment was a deal breaker for me as well. I think we need to wait a few years now, but part of the solution is an amendment repealing TABOR, Gallagher, and Amendment 23. Clear all tax related language from the state constitution. The eventual alternative solution is a Constitutional Convention — which will open Pandora’s Box to every interest group in the country — not a development that I want to see in my lifetime.

  9. Mike,

    In your entire article, you fail to mention once that the same ‘stupid voters’ who drove 66 down in flames 2-to-1 were the same people who approved a tax on marijuana 2-to-1. They are the same voters who approved 2-to-1 a tax hike (many moons ago) on cigarettes?

    Its not about the tax increase, its (1) how it is implemented and (2) how it is or is not fair to every person in Colorado.

  10. Mitch, where did I mention “stupid voters”? There’s a big difference between passing a sin tax and passing an income tax hike .

  11. There simply isn’t a strong association between per-pupil spending by a state and objective, educational outcomes. It’s not there. Why do people keep implying that it is? Utah spends less per pupil than Colorado but has better objective outcomes. The District of Columbia spends far, far more than Colorado and has less objective outcomes. There are other examples.

    Amendment 66 was about fattening PERA and K-12 employees. Period.

  12. Get a haircut, you old hippie! And stop talking down to the majority of voters who are apparently a lot smarter than you. You will get your way in 2016 when the low information voters decide to vote again.

  13. I agree with Pokey…old liveral, liberal, lefty, socialist, hippies need to shower, shave, use deodorant more often and look like something other than Mr. Nasty… with an agenda

  14. Does Amendment 66 win?
    If Amendment 66 loses, does it lose by more than 10 points?

    In answer to two of the questions that Mr. Littwin posed on his Election Day Quiz: No and hell,yes.

    In an article Mr. Littwin wrote for the Denver Post he astutely observed, “Most of what you’ve read and heard about Amendment 66 is — not to put too fine a point on it — bunk.”

    Not just bunk but $10 million worth of it and voters were still able, by an overwhelming margin, to ignore it.

    Equally surprising, was Mr. Littwin’s endorsement of Amendment 66 because he’s not an endorsement kind of guy. He’s an “anti” kind of guy: anti-Jon Caldera, anti-Tom Tancredo, anti-Scott Gessler, anti-guns, anti-Tea Party. He rarely lends his considerable weight to any cause or candidate. And just because he attacks one politician does not necessarily signify his support of that politician’s opponent.

    So it was more than a little surprising to see him embrace Amendment 66. Equally shocking was the fact that his much-sought-after-but-rarely-given endorsement didn’t come close to saving Amendment 66 from suffering a humiliating, devastating, demoralizing defeat.

    Hope he doesn’t endorse the Broncos.

  15. Mike…go away. You got fired from the DP because you’re a fool.

    I’ll never get the two minutes back from reading your garbage.

    You are what is wrong with America.

  16. Don and John….

    I love you guys and don’t have to know you to know you….Litwin needs to … just…go ….away….still have an opinion… yourself talking to yourself….he is not convincing anybody that is a mature, tax paying American Citizen that just wants to have anyone but him telling the rest of us how much of a tax burden we must pay for the rest of our lives…he does not get it…if he feels “we” need to “pay more” feel free to do that…your money pal.not ours…………….

  17. Raising taxes through Amendment 66 was the path of least resistance for the public K-12 industry. Now the industry has the political cover to adapt to modern times, should it choose to do so.

    Either the industry continues its habitual hostage taker’s negotiating position; “if you don’t give us the money we’re going to hurt the kids”; or the industry improves its productivity.

    There’s a lot of easy pickings for improving academic results and trimming cost structure.

    Personnel policy, real estate use, quality measurement, and harnessing parental demand all have huge contributions to make to K-12 results.

    They are easy operationally, but, of course, hard politically.

    The protected revenue position most public sector calcified public K-12.

    With Amendment 66, the voters faced the industry down.

  18. The comments of Pokey, Me-Mofo, and Silver speak for themselves. Not only are they 8th grade level drivel but say something about the stupidity of the authors. Me-Mofo? You’re kidding, right?

    The offering from Don Lopez is the usual cheesy whining.

  19. oh ryecatcher, you are a charming liberal with a socialist twang in your name calling posts….and….a real adult example for children to throw spit balls at……..

  20. Respectfully, when I voted no and advocated for a no vote on 66, I was not contemplating Obamacare. I was contemplating on the fact that there were no specific expenditures spelled out in the legislation and how really the bait-and-switch was going to be about implementation of SB191, the Common Core Standards and other unfunded mandates on the backs of Colorado’s working poor.

  21. Good, so TABOR is working to limit the ever-accelerating growth of government. It took long enough for that to get liberals to face the music…yet still they resist and hope to bring a bigger club to the next attempt to grow government.

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