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.
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.