Now that Proposition CC has predictably gone down to defeat, the question is what its supporters should do next. I mean, besides drinking heavily.
This is a crushing defeat. It was a relatively small ask — for the state to keep generally modest and only occasionally required TABOR-mandated tax refunds. The state can go years between those required refunds. According to estimates from the governor’s office, the refund over the next three years could be somewhere between $248 and $638. I would have asked the governor about the projected refunds, but it seems he’s on a trade mission to India and Nepal, which, coincidentally I’m sure, are as far away as you can get from the taint of electoral defeat.
The refund money is not nothing. I realize that it would come in handy for many people. I’d prefer the refunds to be on a more graduated scale. But it is money that would have been spent on K-12 education, colleges and universities and transportation. And it should be noted again and again — really, as many times as you can stand — that Colorado, though a wealthy state, is severely underfunded in all these areas. And for one reason only: TABOR.
TABOR opponents don’t know what to do. They argue about whether it’s best to test these assumptions in presidential years, in off-election years, by going big against TABOR limitations, by going small against TABOR limitations. One of the takeaways from this year’s election is that many voters stayed home and minority communities had particularly low turnouts. That’s why someone had the idea to try those laughable report-card mailers. But are Democrats brave enough to run against TABOR in a high-turnout year when their seats are on the line?
We’ve had years of discussions about fiscal thickets and Gordian knots and we’re still in the same place we’ve been for years. This leaves me pretty convinced that if well-funded CC couldn’t pass, it would take a miracle — or, more likely, a fiscal disaster — for any hit on TABOR to be successful. Let’s hope for the miracle option.
You remember Referendum C, which, back in 2005, put a five-year hold on TABOR refunds. That was during a fiscal emergency when the referendum had establishment support from both parties — yes, both parties. That’s when Gov. Bill Owens put his legacy on the line to support the referendum and when then-Mayor John Hickenlooper put his life on the line by jumping out of an airplane. And still it passed with just 52% of the vote.
The big question is why Colorado remains so attached to TABOR. It can’t be out of affection for its author, Doug Bruce. And yet, no other state has anything resembling TABOR in its constitution. Of course, few states, I’m guessing, have anyone resembling Doug Bruce.
The easy — but clearly wrong — take on CC’s defeat is that the vote somehow suggests Colorado is not as blue as a decade’s worth of election results tells us. After all, Colorado citizens didn’t vote to tax themselves and isn’t that the essence of what being a Democrat means? (Hint: no.)
The last time I heard this argument was in 2013 when Amendment 66, which proposed a $950 million annual tax hike in support of K-12 education, was crushed by a stunning 2-to-1 margin despite the active support of then-Gov. Hickenlooper.
Here’s what I wrote back in 2013 after that defeat:
Yes, Colorado is still a purplish state, if swinging blueish. Yes, the state is fiscally conservative. Yes, despite the $10 million spent in favor of 66, the voters rejected the invitation to tax themselves.
The reason, though, is simple. It’s TABOR. It begins with TABOR. It ends with TABOR.
When Colorado was a more conservative state, it rejected income tax hikes that, because of TABOR rules, citizens must vote on. When Colorado became a more liberal state, it still rejected income tax hikes that, because of TABOR rules, citizens must vote on. Since TABOR, Colorado has never voted for an income tax hike.
Well, Colorado is definitely more bluish now. In 2018, Colorado Democrats had their most successful election cycle in memory, basically sweeping the state. You can put that down to changing demographics as much as anything else. When TABOR was passed in 1992, the state population, according to the 1990 census, was just above 3.3 million. The estimated pre-2020-census population today is 5.7 million.
Colorado, for good or ill, is a strikingly different place now than it was when TABOR was passed. Rising housing costs. Better restaurants. You know the deal. Is Colorado still fiscally conservative, as the CC vote would imply? We have seen community after community de-Bruce. Or would residents of other states — I mean, traditionally blue states — be just as unwilling to tax themselves if they were hamstrung by TABOR and needed to have the tax decided directly by the voters.
When you put a tax hike on the ballot, you are, in effect, taking what would be the first step in attempting to raise taxes in the legislature, where there would be give and where there would be take and where there would be trade-offs and where there would be debates over how the money should be raised and where there would debates over where it should be spent. And this may be the most important part: Where there remains — this is still a thing, by the way, in places other than Washington — a chance for compromise.
Losing CC is a setback but not a financial disaster for the state. It means that important areas of concern will remain underfunded, but that would have been the case even if CC had passed.
The major point in this election is that in an increasingly blue state, TABOR seems to remain sacrosanct. Some Colorado leader has to be bold enough and persuasive enough to convince voters that TABOR, with its multiple limitations on providing funds to reflect the state’s needs, is not the best way to run a government. All we know to this point is that, so far, no one has come close.