Failure of Amendment 73 and Prop. 110 forces Colorado back to the drawing board on transportation, education funding

Voters swooned for liberal candidates, but shunned spending measures

(Photos via CDOT and Jason Hoover/Flickr)

Colorado voters have turned the state as blue as it’s been since World War II, tapping Democrats for the governorship, every other major statewide office and handing them control of both chambers of the state legislature.

But as clearly as voters spoke about the liberal candidates on the ballot, they were equally forceful — if not more so — in their dismissal of spending measures.

The blue wave in Colorado evidently didn’t touch Amendment 73, an income tax for education, or Proposition 110, a sales tax for transportation. Both lost by wide margins 45-55 and 40-60, respectively. And now Colorado goes back to the drawing board yet again in the continuing effort to fix underfunding problems in schools and on roads.

“We’re limited in our ability to address either,” said House Majority Leader KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder.

That limitation is an amendment to Colorado’s constitution called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which limits the amount of revenue the state can retain and spend, and requires voter approval for new taxes. So, it may not matter much that Democrats who are supportive of new spending on schools and roads will be taking power in January because there’s only so much they can do to increase funding.

After Tuesday’s defeats of 73 and 110, the problems those measures sought to fix are likely to fester, if not worsen. Also failing on Tuesday was Proposition 109, a measure that competed with 110 and sought to borrow $3.5 billion for roads and bridges, but would have forced Colorado to pay back the money by either raising taxes or fees or cutting funding elsewhere.

Colorado ranks in the bottom half nationally for per-pupil public funding, and 100 of its 178 school districts are now on four-day school weeks to cut costs. Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Transportation has a $9 billion backlog for infrastructure projects, and frustrations over traffic and access issues will only grow as the state booms as a tourist and business destination, and becomes more populous.

On the day after the election, Becker was hopeful something can get done on these fronts.

“We’re going to continue to look at creative ways to think about this,” she said.

Laura Chapin, spokeswoman for the Yes on 73 campaign, tried to put an equally optimistic face on things.

“There has to be a solution,” she said. “What concrete form that comes in, we’re not sure at this point.”

Problem is, if there were easy solutions to education and transportation funding woes, 73 and 110 might never have been brought to voters in the first place. They were introduced precisely because existing strategies haven’t worked out. Neither measure was viewed as a perfect solution — 110, in particular, attracted a ton of criticism from new urbanists concerned that funding road and highway expansions would only worsen traffic and encourage people to drive rather than use other forms of transit.

None of the half-dozen politicians, policy wonks and activists interviewed the day after both tax measures fell could offer specifics about how they think Colorado can wriggle its way out of education and transportation funding constraints without either taking on TABOR or hoping for a better outcome at the ballot box in 2020.

Kelly Brough, CEO and president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which backed 110, was blunt about what the measure’s failure means in the near term.

“We won’t see major improvements in our transportation experience anytime soon,” she said in a statement.

“It’s an understatement to say we are disappointed.”

Brough and others have noted that voters’ rejections of 73 and 110 mean, among other things, that poorer and rural areas will continue to struggle to come up with dollars for their underfunded schools and local transportation networks, while wealthier areas won’t suffer nearly as much.

Said Becker, of 110, “My fear about not coming up with new funding there is that cities and regions that can deal with their own transportation without a statewide solution can create their own district and that’s just going to leave rural areas behind and big projects behind.”

Colorado’s incoming governor, Democrat Jared Polis — he beat state Treasurer Walker Stapleton by seven points — will no doubt end up being a player in upcoming conversations about how, if at all, Colorado can meaningfully improve transportation and education systems in the absence of new tax revenue. He ran on a platform of “making Colorado work” for all types of communities in all parts of the state, and he’ll have his work cut out for him now that foundering schools and local transit networks in what are often referred to as “forgotten” parts of Colorado can’t count on revenues from 73 or 110.

Polis didn’t endorse either measure, even as prominent Democrats in the state — including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Polis’s primary opponents, Mike Johnston and Cary Kennedy — spoke up for them. He simply said he’d take no position and that it’s unclear what solutions he may push on education and transportation once in office.

Polis has been criticized for lacking specifics on how he’d fund the free pre-K and kindergarten program he promised on the campaign trail. The failure of 73 makes that campaign promise even tougher to carry out. He will also inherit from Hickenlooper a host of other unfunded needs, including health care, rural internet, jobs training and water, for which there also will be pressure to find funding sources.

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