Colorado voters reject TABOR change to increase state spending

Proposition CC would have allowed the state to keep TABOR refunds and pay for education and transportation projects.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens mingles with opponents of Proposition CC in the Denver Tech Center on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens mingles with opponents of Proposition CC in the Denver Tech Center on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

Colorado voters rejected a measure Tuesday to permanently give up their TABOR refunds to help pay for K-12 schools, higher education and transportation projects. 

After taking an early lead in ballot returns, the tide turned. By Wednesday morning, the vote was 55% against to 45% in favor, with opponents declaring victory and supporters acknowledging defeat. 

TABOR, or the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, set revenue limits for the state based on a formula. In the simplest terms, when state revenues surpass that cap, voters get a refund. It’s those refunds that proponents of Prop CC wanted the state to be able to keep, essentially doing away with the limits. 

The stakes tonight were big. TABOR is both loved and loathed, either seen as a constitutional amendment holding the state back in critical areas or one that has kept government spending in check. 

Had it passed, the hard-fought ballot measure would have been an incremental step toward chipping away at a conservative fiscal policy that for decades has limited state spending and government growth. 

As early results were coming in, opponents of the measure gathered in a curtained-off, wood-paneled side room of The Great Northern Tavern. Laura Carno, co-founder of SpringsTaxpayers, sitting at one of the clothed tables, said, “it’s sort of like waiting for a jury at a trial.”

The wait wasn’t long. By 8 p.m., the secretary of state office had the count at 56% against and slightly more than 44% for. At 8:04 p.m., Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president of The Independence Institute called the night, announcing that CC had failed among whooping cheers and applause.

The picture was decidedly glum in Denver’s RiNo district, where Prop CC supporters gathered at the Improper City, a minimalist and hip bar. Nerves were on edge from the outset, and as the gap widened, several people began putting on their coats to leave before the vote was final. Sen. Lois Court, a Democrat from Denver, said a strong turnout was key to the measure’s passage and turnout was low at under 30% just after 8 p.m. “Educating people about complex issues is difficult,” she said. “A lot of people say ‘I don’t vote when I don’t understand it.’”

Several people said the measure lost on messaging. Opponents created the impression it would take people’s tax refunds, supporters said. “I do think there was an exploitation of people’s misunderstanding,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, which was supporting the measure.

House Speaker KC Becker, who helped refer the measure to the ballot, said she was disappointed in the vote. People want a solution for how to pay for K-12, higher education and transportation, she said. Opponents of Prop CC, she said, suggests cutting health care and Medicaid. “And that’s just not something we are going to be willing to do,” she said.

The measure won in Denver, Boulder, Broomfield, Pitkin, Summit, Eagle, Routt, Gunnison and four counties in southwestern Colorado. But, as returns keep coming in, it appears to have failed everywhere else, with the writing on the wall when Jefferson and Arapahoe voters said no.

Colorado Sen. Lois Court gathers among supporters of Prop CC, which voters rejected on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. A disappointed Court said strong turnout was critical to the measure's passage and too many voters stayed home.
Colorado Sen. Lois Court gathers among supporters of Prop CC, which voters rejected on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. A disappointed Court said strong turnout was critical to the measure’s passage and too many voters stayed home. (Photo by John Herrick)

Sen. Rob Woodward, a Republican from Loveland who opposed Prop CC, said the language on the ballot was misleading in that it didn’t guarantee the money would be spent on education and transportation. 

“We’re going to make a promise that this money is going to go there, but there’s nothing to prevent us from shifting those monies around,” Woodward said. 

The measure required an independent audit of how the state spent the new revenue. But Woodward’s concerns ran deeper. 

“I am always suspect any time they try to make government bigger, and CC does exactly that,” he said. 

Former Gov. Bill Owens, who showed up at the anti-Prop CC gathering shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., said he supported the opposition from the beginning. “The state is awash with money, and what it needs to do is invest those resources wisely,” he said.

Millions of dollars poured in on both sides to pay for advertising campaigns aimed at swaying residents’ votes. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political group backed by Charles and the late David Koch, raised $1.4 million this year to help defeat the measure. Coloradans for Prosperity, an independent expenditure committee working to pass the measure, raised $4.3 million, mostly from liberal dark money groups that don’t have to report their donors. 

The measure began with the words: “without raising taxes.” But in some years, including the next three, it would have allowed the state to keep refunds ranging from $20 to $250 per household. Whether that constitutes a tax increase was a matter of fierce debate. 

Taxpayers don’t necessarily get refunds every year. That only happens when the state takes in more money than the TABOR cap. Refunds were issued twice in the past 10 years — in 2016 and 2019 — and come separately from state refunds. 

The revenue from the measure — which was estimated between a total of $541.7 million to $1.7 billion over the next three fiscal years, according to state economists — would have been given to state legislators and split evenly among K-12 education, higher education and transportation projects. The one-time funds would have allowed schools to pay for air conditioners and helped the state pave roads and hold down college tuition increases. 

Such revenue projections still came up short of fully funding these state’s programs. About $8 billion is needed for highway projects. Another $8 billion is owed to schools under a constitutional guarantee of school funding. Meanwhile, in 2017, Colorado was the fourth lowest in the nation for the amount of money invested in higher education. 

“The reality is the state government is not keeping pace with the expectations of Coloradans,” said Scott Wasserman, the president of the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank. 

The conversation about TABOR has been esoteric, Wasserman said. For that reason, he wants to see another question on the ballot that creates a broader conversation about Colorado’s tax policy, including a new policy where the wealthy pay a higher tax rate. 

“I think that the conversation about a progressive tax system is something that most Americans understand,” he said. “We need to take this conversation out of the TABOR weeds and talk in a language that everyone understands.”

This story was updated at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday. 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps Gov Owens would be so kind as to inform us of where the $$s are exactly that Colorado is “awash in”, so we could pay some teachers a living wage and fix some potholes and bridges?

    • They give it to illegals Ritter’s “Fee” hikes were supposed to fix the roads. My vehicles tripled and I can only drive one at a time. Teachers take the job then don’t like the pay? Quit and do something else Paying someone 6oK plus for 8 months year teaching 5 and 6yr olds the words to “Old Mac Donald ” and Pre K with the PERA down the road is nuts. Don’t take a job then say you’re unhappy’ and listen to CEA/NEA crap. and go on strike like the Chicago sheboons should’ve gotten a STEM degree.

  2. Eight years after the Tabor Amendment was passed Westword ran a great article on a special fund raising party Colorado’s First Lady, Francis Owens had at the Governor’s mansion. As a sidebar to covering all of the special people who attended the fete, Ms. Calhoun’s writers also ran a story on how 30% of the state’s revenues were being cut with special interest tax breaks of company’s all those very special people just happened to either own or work for. One group of very special people who made out like bandits were the owner’s of oil and gas wells and coal mines who had their severance taxes cut drastically. In the case of “stripper wells” the severance tax was eliminated altogether, The oil, gas, and coal tax cuts have cut state revenues over 15 billion dollars, and all the other special interest tax breaks given out by Bill Owens and the Republican legislature are the main reason why this state doesn’t have the money to properly pay for its schools and infrastructure. This is why the Legislature tried to convince the electorate to agree to take, yet again, another tax increase by giving up their TABOR refunds: The State Legislature lacks the balls to take on the special interests in big oil, big ag., and various other entities. You see, the odd thing is that while the TABOR Amendment requires a vote of the people to raise NEW taxes, the State Supreme Court found in the case ” Huber v. Colo. Mining Ass’n, 264 P.3d 884 (Colo. 2011).,” that there is no need for a vote of the people to restore severance taxes to coal, oil, and gas back to their post TABOR levels that the GOP had cut back in 2001. Now that the voters have spoken, it’s all going to boil down to a case of guts and nuts: It should be interesting to see if the Democrats in the State Legislature have them, or whether they can just be intimidated to play ball.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.