Koch brothers convene in a city full of reminders of a tax fight they lost

Corey Hutchins

COLORADO SPRINGS — Drive through the downtown streets in Colorado’s second largest city and you’ll see signs reading “2C” and “Your Tax Dollars At Work” dotting small construction sites of orange cones, machinery and swirling dust.

One such project straddles Nevada Avenue, a main artery in the Springs that leads out of the city toward The Broadmoor hotel, a five-star resort tucked into the mountains on the outskirts of town.

There, for the past three days, David and Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialists and conservative donors whose political network and infrastructure is on par with the Republican Party, have been holding a retreat with some 400 wealthy donors.

On Sunday, a hotel worker guarded a bridge across a small lake there, saying half the hotel had been reserved, and guests needed a special badge to get in. Select members of the media were allowed to cover the traditionally secretive twice-annual Koch event as long as they agreed not to disclose the names of donors who attended without their permission.

That the Kochs chose The Broadmoor for their gala a dozen years after they first gathered donors in Chicago “to discuss how to promote their economic theories” is perhaps not surprising. Owned by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, who has been a guest at multiple Koch retreats in the past, the hotel is a premier stop on the elite conference circuit.

But Colorado Springs, the city home to the hotel, was just last year also the host of a small-scale battle in the Koch network’s ideological war. A local chapter of their prime nonprofit political arm, Americans for Prosperity, fought a local initiative called 2C, which today appears on multiple construction zone signs around town.

Passed by Colorado Springs voters in 2015, 2C raised the local sales tax here 0.62 percent for five years so more money could be used to fix the city’s notoriously crumbling, pot-holed roads.

At the time, the Koch group’s involvement in a local infrastructure issue put a spotlight on how Americans for Prosperity has been “seizing on local issues across the country as it works to build a permanent grass-roots army.” The group had fought other local projects, such as funding for streetcars in Milwaukee, a gas tax in South Carolina, a small town public public library in Illinois. It also has gotten involved in school board races in Colorado.

Related: What AFP is doing in Colorado and how our state fits in its ‘persuasion universe’

In the Springs, while business groups, the conservative city council and civic leaders supported the tax, the local chapter of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity pushed back, publishing a 23-page report and hiring an out-of-state accountant who examined the city’s budget and told local officials they could find money elsewhere to fix the roads without raising taxes.

Championing the tax, which voters approved last November with about 65 percent of the vote, was Mayor John Suthers, the state’s former Republican attorney general and an ex-U.S. attorney. At the time, he declined to engage on what it was like battling AFP over his proposal, saying only: “To the extent they’re wrong, I’m going to say, ‘You’re wrong,’ but I’m not going to get in a back-and-forth.”

The last thing the mayor needed was to elevate the fight and find his initiative on the receiving end of a large expenditure aimed at derailing it.

As much as AFP fought the proposal, the group bowed out of the actual election fight once the measure made the ballot. The measure passed by a margin of 2-to-1.

And it happened, it should be noted, in a heavily conservative area, the birthplace of the Libertarian Party, a city ringed by five military installations and home to the evangelical Focus on the Family, and the home of Douglas Bruce, the anti-tax folk hero and architect of Colorado’s 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Constitutional amendment.

The city has come a long way. In 2010, despite a budget crisis that forced the city to cut 530 municipal positions, then-Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera and the city council turned down $42 million in jobs assistance as part of the economic stimulus as a matter of conservative principle.

In a promotional video on the city’s website, Mayor Suthers unveiled the 2C “Your Tax Dollars At Work” signs, bringing to mind to the ones promoting projects that were part of President Barack Obama’s 2009 federal stimulus package, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Throughout the summer they’ll see a lot of the signs … indicating the progress that’s being made,” Suthers says in the video about the placards around the Springs. “And over the next five years we’re going to be seeing a lot of these.”