Outside groups continue to spend millions of dollars to sway Colorado voters on a key tax question: Should the state be able to keep excess revenue and spend it on transportation and education? The answer will impact how Colorado budgets.
In addition to mail and advertising, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity has sent people door to door.
“We are asking you to vote no on Prop CC. It weakens our Taxpayer Bill of rights,” Heather Williamson said to a Republican voter in Westminster who answered the door.
He agreed with her and repeatedly said, “so, it’s a tax increase,” before saying he’ll likely vote against the proposal. In the battle over Prop CC, the question of “tax increase” is at the heart of the matter.
If Prop CC passes in November, it would be the first significant statewide change to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights since 2005 — the last time voters were asked to forgo their TABOR refunds. Unlike that earlier referendum, which was temporary for five years, this change is permanent. And unlike then, there is no high profile Republican backer, like former Gov. Bill Owens.
The debate this time largely falls along party lines. The Democratic-controlled state legislature referred the measure to the ballot with only one Republican backer.
TABOR limits government growth and requires voters to approve tax increases. It also caps how much tax money the state can keep and anything over the limit tied to inflation and population growth is returned to taxpayers. Instead of asking voters to raise new money for roads and schools (which is always a challenge), backers of CC will ask voters to let the state keep what it has already collected.
Many school districts and local cities have already approved similar measures, and it’s a much easier sell to statewide voters than a new tax. If it passes, an estimated $310 million will be added to the next state budget.
“It’s about spending our tax money that’s already taken, towards education and fixing the roads,” said Yes Campaign canvasser Kane Randolph as he knocked on doors in central Denver.
Like the opposition campaigners going door to door, Randolph walks in different neighborhoods about six hours each day. He’s targeting mostly Democratic voters and when people aren’t home he drops off an informational flyer. He occasionally stops at houses not on the list if it looks like someone’s there. That’s how he caught up with Dan Hammes, a retiree who recently moved to Denver from Chicago.
“I consider myself conservative overall, but in a case like this, I believe schools are important, certainly wouldn’t have any problem supporting the schools or infrastructure with money that sounds like is already spent,” Hammes said. The money hasn’t been spent but the taxes have been collected, a point Randolph drives home. “They already took it. And that’s the cool thing about this there’s no tax hike to make this happen.”
The proposed use of the funds is another point of contention. Colorado Rising Action is working to defeat Prop CC and executive director Michael Fields said there’s no guarantee the money will always go to education and roads. Plus, the changes are forever unlike the previous five-year window.
“I think that they could use that money on whatever they want to. It's a blank check and it's permanent,” Fields said.
Opponents worry this is the first step in Democratic efforts to undo TABOR altogether. Supporters insist this isn’t a precursor to anything, but a common sense way to improve the state and the cost of inaction is too great.
“I just think that the frustration is pretty high right now with having arguably the best economy in the country and still being below the national average and funding for schools and having really crowded highways,” said Carol Hedges the executive director of the progressive Colorado Fiscal Institute.
Hedges thinks TABOR has done lasting damage to Colorado and her group is working on efforts to potentially put a full TABOR repeal on the 2020 ballot. Regardless of what happens with this initiative, the fight over Prop CC is potentially just the warmup act for a much bigger TABOR showdown.
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