If Colorado voters this November approve a $1 billion income tax increase to fund schools, they will break a string of defeats for similar measures stretching back decades.
Since the early 1990s, voters have approved only two ballot measures that affected education revenues – and neither of those included a general tax increase. Over the same period, voters defeated six K-12 or higher education funding measures.
And voters haven’t been kind to other kinds of tax increases, changes in debt limits or tweaks to existing financial provisions of the state constitution. Seven of those measures have been defeated, and only three have passed. (Article continues below timeline.)
“It’s a challenging list,” said Wade Buchanan, president of the progressive-leaning Bell Policy Center and a long-time observer of state fiscal issues and battles.
To set some context for this fall’s expected campaign to pass a tax increase for K-12, Education News Colorado reviewed the history of ballot measures back to the early 1990s and interviewed a variety of political observers and operatives.
The tax increase is needed to pay for Senate Bill 13-213, the recent law that would create a new method for distributing school funding. No specific measure has yet been proposed for this November. The civic group Colorado Forum has filed proposals but has yet to decide which one it will attempt to get on the ballot through a petition campaign. Various business interests are still debating which of the 16 tax plans to support.
Most of those interviewed basically agreed with veteran campaign consultant Katy Atkinson, who said, “I think it’s going to be very difficult” to pass a measure. But communications consultant Eric Sondermann added, “You can pass these things. It’s not impossible.”
Patterns in the past
“We have kind of a tough record here when it comes to pitching tax measures statewide,” noted Charlie Brown, director of the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. “Nothing of a huge magnitude has passed.”
Political observers cite a variety of reasons why some measures passed and others didn’t.
“Most of them didn’t attract the kind of money you need” for the campaign, said Buchanan.
Buchanan and others said that lack of campaign support may have doomed 2011’s Proposition 103, which would have added $536 million in temporary income and sales tax increase for education, and Amendment 59 in 2008, which would have diverted some tax refunds into education.
Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs, who has been advising Colorado Forum, agreed. The 103 campaign didn’t have enough funding “to the point that they saturated the market,” he said. (Melanson also ran one of the few successful tax-increase campaigns, Initiative 35 in 2004.)
Some measures that passed “flew under the radar” and were approved without much opposition because public attention was focused on higher-profile measures in those election years, Sondermann said. Amendment 50, which passed in 2008 and expanded limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges, is an example.
Statewide ballot proposals have a handicap that often doesn’t affect local tax proposals, such as school bond issues and tax overrides, which voters have a history of supporting.
“The more tangible the issue, the better chance you have of engaging voters,” Buchanan said. “When you go to the state level you get into abstractions. … It’s harder for people to know what you’re talking about.”
Charlie Brown and Sondermann agreed with that analysis. “Coloradans want to know what they’re buying,” said Sondermann.
Fred Brown, retired political columnist and reporter, cited metro-area voter support of stadium taxes, the cultural facilities levy and FasTracks as examples. “People knew exactly what they were getting for their money,” he said.
Is Ref C relevant?
When people talk about the proposed K-12 ballot measure, the conversation often turns to Referendum C.
Referendum C allowed the state to retain and spend for five years revenue that would have otherwise had to have been refunded to citizens under terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of tax increases and sets ceilings on revenue collections. Ref C, as it’s commonly called, didn’t raise tax rates. It passed with a 52 percent yes vote.
The measure, placed on the ballot by the legislature, was supported by Republican Gov. Bill Owens and was backed by a bipartisan coalition that included large segments of the business community. It was also promoted by a well-funded campaign. Backers of more education spending often say their plan needs the same “broad coalition” that supported Ref C.
Buchanan notes that Ref C provided about as much revenue as the education ballot measure proposes. But, he said, “There’s a big difference” between letting state government keep revenue and “telling people yes, this does raise your taxes.”
Atkinson agreed, noting the Ref C ballot language began with the words “Without raising taxes …”
She also said Owens’ support “gave Republicans permission to support” Ref C, and that there’s no high-profile GOP support this year for an education tax increase. Fred Brown noted that in 2005 many other Republicans opposed the measure.
Veteran political strategist Mike Dino said, “I do think Colorado voters have been accustomed to lower taxes for a long time” and that “we’re not in as good an economic time as with Ref C.”
Ref C passed with only about 52 percent of the vote, and a companion debt proposal failed.
Prospects for the campaign
“I’m sure they’re aware this is a tough uphill battle,” Charlie Brown said of the prospective campaign.
Many observers think campaign funding will be a key factor.
The 1992 election saw the passage of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which in many ways has set the course for subsequent ballot measures. That year also saw the defeat of an education-funding-and-reform plan backed by then-Gov. Roy Romer.
Fred Brown, retired Denver Post political columnist and reporter, blames it all on maverick third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.“I think 1992 was a bizarre year because there was such a huge turnout, and it was driven by Ross Perot’s candidacy, ” Brown said. “Anti-government types were energized by the Perot candidacy.”
Brown says that aided the passage of TABOR and Amendment 2 (an anti-gay measure later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court) and the defeat the schools proposal. “Neither one of those measures would have passed, and maybe the school tax would have passed” without Perot voters, Brown speculated.
“It’s all about how much money you have,” said Buchanan.
Atkinson said the minimum for a campaign is probably $4 million. Sondermann cited $7 million as a reasonable amount, “but it’s probably closer to $10 million.”
Melanson wouldn’t venture a guess on an amount, but he did say, “You have to be funded to the degree that people understand what’s in the measure.”
Observers are of different minds about how voters will swing this year. Turnout usually is lower in off-year elections, and Sondermann noted that voters tend to skew older in those years. (The only measure currently set for the November ballot is a legislature proposal to set taxes on recreational marijuana.)
Others think that pro-education voters will turn out this year, motivated by past district budget cuts and the prospect of future K-12 revenue increases. Supporters are counting on that happening.
“The mood is certainly pro-education,” said Fred Brown.
“I think the political climate has changed,” he continued. “Colorado is more liberal now than it was 20 years ago, so that might make a difference. … But Colorado is more of an independent-minded state. It’s hard to predict what voters will do.”
Melanson sounded a similar note, saying, “The Colorado electorate is a younger electorate now, even in odd-year elections. … The conservative side of the scale was smaller in 2011 than it was in 2005.”
He said his firm started doing research shortly after Proposition 103 was defeated in 2011. “The outlook of Colorado was considerably more pessimistic at that time than it is now.”
But Atkinson noted that some segments of the Democratic Party base don’t necessarily support tax increases.
Gov. John Hickenlooper invariably comes up when people talk about the prospective ballot measure.
The governor’s involvement “will be important to the effort,” Dino said. “We do have a governor who, as mayor, had a lot of good results from putting things on the ballot that had failed in Denver before.” But, Dino added, “There hasn’t necessarily been a commitment by the governor as to the amount of time he’ll spend.”
Hickenlooper has said he’ll campaign for the eventual K-12 measure. But as recently as Wednesday he said he remains “ambivalent” about which variation of the proposed tax increase he prefers.
Atkinson said the governor won’t be the determining factor. “He’s not enough to push it over the top.”
Summing up, schools advocate Lisa Weil said, “I think there’s no question that this is a difficult task,” adding, “The wind is more at our back than it has been for a long time.” Weil is policy director for Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group that supports increased school funding.
Is there enough time?
Some education advocates have been nervous about the fact that a final version of the ballot measure hasn’t been selected.
And there’s time to get the campaign message out – “with money,” Sondermann said.
“I think they have time with the message side of it,” Atkinson agreed.
Roll call of ballot measures
Key: Initiative refers to a measure placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A Referendum is a measure proposed by the legislature. Both types can change the constitution or state law.
Six measures passed over the last three decades have shaped the landscape for government finance.
1982 – Referendum 1: The so-called Gallagher Amendment set new rules and ratios for assessment of property, has had the effect of reducing revenue from residential property taxes and, in combination with TABOR, shifted the bulk of school funding to the state.
1992 – Initiative 6: Known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), this constitutional amendment requires voter approval of tax increases, sets limits on annual government revenue increases and requires refunds of surplus revenues. At the local level, voters in many schools districts have opted out of some TABOR provisions, as the amendment allows, but voter approval of tax increases still is required.
Initiative 8: The Great Outdoors Colorado (GoCo) amendment reserves most state lottery revenues for wildlife conservation and open space, locking up revenues that are used for education or general purposes in many other states.
1994 – Referendum A: This constitutional amendment restricted future ballot measures to a “single subject.” Proposed partly in response to TABOR, the measure actually has made it harder for TABOR critics to change that amendment and also had spawned legal quibbling over many proposals.
2000 – Initiative 23: Universally known as Amendment 23, this requires base K-12 spending to increase by enrollment and inflation every year. (For the first 10 years it also required annual 1 percent increases on top of that.) A23 is as beloved by most education advocates as TABOR is by many conservatives.
2005 – Referendum C: This measure allowed the state to retain and spend TABOR surpluses for five years. It also changed some TABOR provisions that drove state revenue limits down in recessionary periods but didn’t allow them to recover when the economy improved.
Tax, revenue, spending and debt measures
This is a list of other revenue and spending-related measures on the ballot in recent decades, including both education-related and non-education proposals. Measures in green passed; measures in red were defeated. Vote percentages are rounded off.
Proposition 103 – $536 million temporary income and sales tax increase for education. Lost 36 percent to 63 percent
Amendment 50 – Expansion of limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges. Passed 58-41
Amendment 51 – $186 million sales tax increase to fund services for the developmentally disabled. Lost 37-62
Amendment 58 – $321 million increase in severance taxes, part of which would have been used for college scholarships. Lost 41-58
Amendment 59 – Would have diverted TABOR refunds to K-12 education. Lost 45-54
Referendum C –Passed 52-47
Referendum D – Would have allowed the state to issue debt for school, college and highway construction. Lost 49-50
Initiative 35 – A $175 million tobacco tax increase to fund children’s and other health programs. Passed 61-38
Initiative 32 – Proposed changes in the Gallagher Amendment. Lost 22-77
Initiative 26 – Would have allowed use of $50 million in excess state revenues for planning a monorail system along I-70. Lost 34-65
Amendment 23 – Passed 52-47
Referendum F – Would have allowed use of up to $50 million a year in excess revenues to fund school math and science grants. Lost 44-55
Referendum A – Allowed increase in debt limit (no tax increase) for transportation projects. Passed 61-38
Referendum B – Would have retained up to $200 million a year in excess revenues to fund school and college construction and transportation. Lost 38-61
Initiative 1 – A $178 million tax increase for transportation. Lost 15-84
Initiative 1 – A $132 million increase in tobacco taxes. Lost 38-61
Referendum A – The single-subject amendment passed 65-34
Referendum A – A proposed $13.1 million annual tax increase on “tourist-related” items. Lost 44-55
Initiative 1 – TABOR passed 53-46
Initiative 6 – Proposed a 1 percent increase in sales tax rate to fund schools and would have required setting standards and assessments for schools. Lost 45-54
Initiative 8 – Creation of Great Outdoors fund passed 58-41
Referendum 1 – Gallagher, passed 65-34