When it came to increasing state taxes to stem years of cuts to education spending, Colorado voters just couldn’t stomach it. Voters roundly rejected Proposition 103, the only question on the statewide ballot, by a 2-to-1 margin on Tuesday.
“We gave the people of this state an opportunity to look at where we are as a state and talk about some of the key issues,” said a sanguine state Sen. Rollie Heath at an election-night party at the La Rumba nightclub in Denver after the results were clear. The Boulder Democrat took charge of the Prop 103 campaign after other liberal policy groups decided against running similar measures earlier this year.
“It’s a conversation,” Heath said, “that we need to keep going.”
The measure would have hiked state sales and income taxes for five years and earmarked the estimated $2.9 billion in additional revenue for education spending from preschool through higher ed. Under the proposal, the state sales tax would have gone up from 2.9 percent to 3 percent and the income tax rate would have reached 5 percent, instead of the current 4.63 percent.
Proponents said the additional tax bite would hardly be noticed and repeatedly reminded voters the proposed rates would be the same as were in effect during the boom years of the late 1990s. But opponents argued that spending more money on education wasn’t the cure-all that backers claimed and trotted out studies that claimed higher taxes would cost the state jobs.
Pointing to a state budget released earlier that day — packed with more cuts to education — a glum Heath bemoaned “the gravity of the situation that we are in” and acknowledged that “it’s clear the people of this state are not ready to tax themselves to solve the immediate problems.”
Despite that, Heath said he hopes Coloradans will “come together to say, we need to make some changes” and work on what he termed “the big fix” to unwind the knot of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23, three constitutional provisions he described as a fiscal stranglehold on the state.
“The results of the Proposition 103 election were certainly not we had hoped to see,” echoed Carol Hedges, director of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.
“One lesson reinforced by the Proposition 103 results is that it is much easier to get people to vote no than to vote yes. We must remember that lesson as we continue our work. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights empowers voters to make important decisions about the size of our collective investment in public services. An essential component of our work is to help voters understand the importance of that decision-making role and help them identify the role those public services play in our communities.”
Likewise, Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association, bemoaned the fact that, “Colorado schools won’t get the money to put toward critical goals such as lowering the dropout rate, reducing class sizes, training teachers or preparing students for 21st Century careers, but Proposition 103 did play an important role in moving the conversation forward on public school funding.
“CEA was similarly encouraged by more than 140,000 voters across the state who signed petitions to put Proposition 103 on the election ballot, and thousands more who joined the grassroots coalition led by state Senator Rollie Heath,” Ingle added. “The momentum created by this energy and awareness to find new ways to increase public education funding will be Proposition 103’s lasting legacy.”
Opponents of the measure didn’t sound like they wanted to join Heath’s conversation. Instead, they celebrated the measure’s defeat and said it was time to talk about how to educate Coloradans for less.
“We’re thrilled that citizens saw this on two different levels,” said Regina Thomson, executive director of Too Taxing for Colorado, an issue committee formed to fight Prop 103. “On the one, it was a huge tax increase and just on their pocket books, they rejected it. But on the other side, putting more money into education is not improving education. We have to have a broader conversation on how we deliver education and how we pay for it.”
She said voters rejected the proposal in part because they were wary about an uncertain economy and simply didn’t want to see taxes go up. But even barring that, Thomson said the vote should send a clear message the next time a similar question appears on the ballot: “Raising money for schools will come back time and time again. Our only hope is that we look at real reform for education in the meantime.”
The president of another group that opposed Prop 103 — and ran ads targeting state Sen. Evie Hudak, a Westminster Democrat, who supported the measure — gloated soon after election results started coming in.
“Liberal special interest groups, and their allies in Colorado’s Legislature, simply do not understand that multi-billion dollar tax hikes lead to massive job loss and stifle economic recovery,” said Tyler Q. Houlton in a statement. “Fortunately for our economy, Coloradans rejected this job-killing $2.9 billion tax hike that was never guaranteed to fund Colorado schools in the first place. The failure of Proposition 103 is a major set back for all left-leaning organizations that plan to force more tax hikes on next year’s ballot.”
The measure went down by wide margins even in Denver and Pueblo, Democratic-leaning counties where supporters had hoped to cache enough votes to combat a high turnout by state Republicans. Boulder County was the only large county to back the measure, and not by much.
The party thrown by supporters of Prop 103 turned somber as soon as polls closed at 7 p.m. on Tuesday as initial results arrived from Denver showing the initiative losing by 13 points. “If we’re down that far in Denver, this is going to be a bloodbath,” one observer grimly noted.
“When Denver’s against it, you know something’s going on,” Thomson said the next day. She said even she was surprised by the margin of the initiative’s defeat statewide.
Conceding defeat, Heath exhorted voters to take a longer view.
“Obviously, the people of this state don’t want to tax themselves right now to do it,” he said. “And I can understand that. It’s not an easy thing to do. We had hoped that people were ready to stand up — clearly they weren’t. But let’s hope we all come together to solve these problems, because they’re not going to go away.”
The measure lost across the state, just winning by a slim margin in tiny San Miguel County and by only somewhat larger margins in Boulder and Pitkin counties. It lost most decisively in Elbert County, going down there by almost 4-to-1, but lost by margins nearly that wide in numerous counties, including Mesa, Kiowa, Washington, Teller, Fremont, Park, Delta, Rio Blanco, Archuleta, Chaffee and Montrose. The state’s three bellwether counties – Arapahoe, Jefferson and Larimer – shot down the proposal by an average of roughly 20 points.