Littwin: Now we know Prop CC wasn’t the answer to TABOR problem. Got any idea what is?

Gov. Jared Polis skipped the Nov. 5, 2019 Election Day count that saw Prop CC go down, leaving town a day earlier for a previously unannounced trade trip to India and Nepal. (Photo of mountains in Nepal by kelly-grainger via Flickr:Creative Commons)
Gov. Jared Polis skipped the Nov. 5, 2019 Election Day count that saw Prop CC go down, leaving town a day earlier for a previously unannounced trade trip to India and Nepal. (Photo of mountains in Nepal by kelly-grainger via Flickr:Creative Commons)

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.

He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


  1. What I see and hear is that the voters do not trust those who will spend the money. As you said, this applies to voters from both parties. Of course, neither party will see it this way since their mirrors don’t work.

  2. after so many years of republican assault on the IRS, and taxes, has made “Paying taxes” a dirty word…we are going to have to wage a political war on the one percenters, who are the oligarchy, who are the ones blocking common sense fixes to our dilemma…the republican party is the enemy of all that is GOOD in America…these republicans must be removed from office this election…all of them…

  3. I’ve suggested elsewhere there should be a campaign comparing an end to TABOR and a modest increase in taxes versus what citizens are paying for now.

    How efficient is it to have school co-curricular activities funded by selling candy, magazines, light bulbs, or having volunteers staff concession stands? Or to pay for a tire alignment after hitting a pothole that grew until it was big enough to qualify on the priority list of a transportation department? Or to pay tolls for roads (and the foreign company that built and manages them)? Or to have Grandma move in since there is no money for skilled nursing at her apartment?

    Things are getting paid for — it is a question of whether what is being paid for creates a public good, and if it does, is it more efficient and fair to limit it to those who can pay (or have their parents or a nonprofit group pay).

  4. I think the big thing that we’re missing is that Yes, Colorado might be a blue state now but it is not a progressive state economically, far from it. Most Blue Dem’s are liberals, more than happy to check a box for gay marriage, abortion rights, trans issues, and oppose fracking in the backyards of their half-million dollar homes. These things after all don’t cost them a nickel and allows everyone to feel good about themselves. They will proudly tell you all about how ” woke” they are.
    Ask them to pull a few bucks out of their pockets and help pay for schools and roads and you’ll get a very different response. “Whoa there mister wacky Socialist, lets not get crazy! We all need to be adults here”. Their children don’t sit in schools with 50 kids per classroom, they go to ” academies. The toll roads they drive on in $50K cars aren’t pot-holed. To them, $13K per year at CU for their kids college is not that big of a deal.
    These are not stupid people, they are white collared, highly educated and successful people who work hard. They wonder ” why can’t everyone do the same thing we did to succeed?” It doesn’t occur to them that not everyone can be a lawyer or an Engineer. Their Money is THEIRS, every red cent of it, The rest of Society can go pound sand.

  5. For all of those like Buford above, see California. You will reap what you sow. The problem is the fiscal irresponsibility of the government at all levels. Fix THAT and you begin to fix the problem. Thank GOD for TABOR.

  6. A modified CC would have worked and will work in the future as follows:
    -Limit the duration(5 years is suggested)
    -Guarantee that the extra funds will supplement, not supplant, targeted budgets.
    -Insure that the anticipated additional funding will not re-set the TABOR thresholds.
    -Annual audits re the above to test compliance.

  7. TABOR is a good law and should not be changed regardless of what the progressives or Democrats think. When I moved here for the third time (2001) I heard about TABOR and thought, “How novel, asking the voters and taxpayers on if they approve a tax increase” , because we all know the politicians are going to look out for us, and not screw us in the end to fund they own projects and get themselves re-elected and look like they are doing something other than brown-nosing, telling us what they think we want to hear, telling us what is good for us, and picking their noses. The monies alloted for schools (its for the kids…need a new cliche) seems to go into a sinkhole and then the school boards ask for more while kids are being taught nothing, and more like indoctrinated to the way the libtard teachers want them to be, just an example. Monies collected from taxes need to prioritized more and not allocated on the assumption, if allotted a certain way, certain politcians will win re-election. I thought when marijuana was legalized in Colorado, that the school funding was taken care of, but alas, not true. We still have beggars for more money to be spent on schools that produce kids that can barely hack the college curriculums and rely on parents to fund their adventure in finding themsleves.

  8. If nothing else, TABOR is a good example for the rest of the nation that the experimental Conservative Starve the Beast fever dream is actually a nightmare.

  9. As Secretary to UVC in 2001 to 2005, I was in middle of that fight for TABOR ,which had been in play years before. We were just coming off the Romer (Democrat) years, and TABOR was a block to Romer and the Legislature in those y ears, that reached maturity. Funds were spent for programs, and state was spending about $1.50 for each military retiree, veteran, and family member in National Guard. Many of my peers of those years, are no longer with us, but I will speak up, and say we were well within our rights, to hold legislature and government officials feet to the fire. And with a grandson who entered Freshman Class, having his life threatened by young toughs in East High School, dropping out due to threats, we were not convinced that High School was teaching, or supporting family efforts either. Too many dropped out after one or two years, In high school. And those who graduated, faced one to two years of makeup, before they could succeed in college, is they did not drop out by then too. Now, many years later, I still do not see improvement, with more expense to teach foreign students, English. So same fight goes on, to fund programs that do not work, and not funding those needed. ——–Retiring from military in 1976, moving back to Colorado to my residence, I sat in community and college classes, and saw waste from the inside, with teachers telling students “how many days each semester, they could miss, without effecting their grades”, and also fudging grades to give unearned credit to some students, at expense of other, true students. Any increase to schools, is spread by formula to new desks, or conference tables, so does not go to improving graduation rates, or true educational needs. (NOTE: During my military service, I taught foreign students, who had to meet minimum English requirements, BEFORE they entered my classrooms). But in Aurora, having 135 countries with 135 languages in K12 schools, is bragged about, on 5×8 inch cards sent home with students or by mail to voters. And teachers are expected to teach those children. REALLY?
    ——– I will continue to vote against such increases, or for more classrooms or schools. My taxes, and my service (military paid premiums) for my children to be educated, and foreign students should be paid for, by their parents now.

  10. I think CC failed because there was not a detailed enough outline of exactly how much of the money would be spent on exactly which areas, administered by exactly whom, and how it would be publicly accounted for. I would love to see more funding for education, but am not willing to chuck money into a rabbit hole.
    On a related matter, I am appalled that DD passed. One of the arguments against it was that there wasn’t enough money provided for counseling and treatment for those who became addicted to gambling. Well, if that isn’t enough to vote against it, I don’t know what is. How can we promote such a sleazy way of funding water projects or anything else? And, by the way, what “water projects,” exactly? Another rabbit hole.

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