Colorado Voters Weigh Statewide Tax for Schools
Will hard-nosed political assumptions be upended today when the votes are counted on Proposition 103?
Sen. Rollie Heath, father of the proposal to temporarily increase state tax rates to help fund education, thinks so. “I don’t have anybody now telling me we don’t have a chance,” the Boulder Democrat told Education News Colorado late last week.
Republican former legislator Victor Mitchell said he thinks Prop. 103 will lose, but he did use the phrase “cautiously optimistic” when saying making that prediction during an interview. Mitchell heads one opposition group, Save Colorado Jobs.
Veteran political observer Eric Sondermann said, “By every indication this thing should not be viable.” Sondermann is chairman of the Denver communications consulting firm SE2.
Reviewing the Conventional Wisdom
The conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 goes something like this: Voters won’t support a statewide tax increase in tough economic times.
Mitchell notes “low consumer and business confidence,” and opposition speakers have been stressing the economic argument during campaign appearances.
Last year voters around the state approved the vast majority of school district tax increases, despite an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent. The jobless rate is down to 8.3 percent now, but national consumer confidence is lower than it was last fall.
A tax increase can’t be passed without massive and visible business and political support.
• State income tax rate would rise to 5 percent from 4.63 percent
• State sales tax rate would go to 3 percent from 2.9 percent
• New rates are same as those in effect in 1999
• Higher rates would end in 2017
• Proposition would raise an estimated $3 billion over five years
• Additional revenue could be spent only on preschool programs, K-12 schools and state colleges and universities
• Legislature would decide how to split revenues
• Spending would have to be in addition to levels of 2011-12
Sondermann harks back to Referendum C, the 2005 ballot measure that modified the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to generate more state revenue but didn’t raise tax rates.
Ref. C proponents “had probably 20 times more money” than Heath, “they had a media drumbeat like this state hasn’t seen … they had a halfway decent economy … and they had a Republican governor providing a bipartisan veneer,” Sondermann noted. Then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C, which was placed on the ballot by the legislature and passed with 52 percent of the vote.
“None of those are present today; even the Democratic governor is not on board,” Sondermann noted.
There’s been much media chatter about Gov. John Hickenlooper’s refusal to take a stand of Prop. 103. He cites a 2010 campaign promise about not seeking or supporting a tax increase during his first year in office.
But Heath was happy with Hickenlooper’s recent announcement that he would veto any later effort to change the terms of Prop. 103 if it passes. (The proposal would change state law, not the constitution, so it could be legally changed by the legislature. Opponents have repeated raised that possibility on the campaign trail. The proposition’s language requires the additional funds raised the rate increase be devoted to public education, from preschool to universities. The legislature would decide how to split the money and couldn’t supplant existing education funding with the new money.)
And Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, Hickenlooper’s No. 2 and the administration’s point man on education, repeatedly has made sympathetic noises about Prop. 103 but stopped short of an endorsement.
Part of the reason Heath hasn’t gained support from heavyweight business and political interests involves disagreement over the “big fix.”
That phrase refers to the conflicting constitutional provisions governing state and local spending, property tax limits and education funding that have left lawmakers with little room to maneuver in the current revenue squeeze.
A variety of civic, good government and business groups have been talking about a “big fix” but haven’t reached agreement on what it should look like and when it should be presented to voters.
Heath’s point, which he’s made repeatedly while campaigning, is that students and schools can’t wait after three years of significant education budget cuts. “While we are dealing with the big fix do we do nothing or do we do something? Give these kids a chance.” The Prop. 103 tax-rate hikes would be in effect for five years, enough time in Heath’s mind for interest groups to agree on the big fix.
Countering the Conventional Wisdom
Heath’s counter to the conventional wisdom comes from the impressions he’s gained stumping the state.
“We’ve been very pleased with the momentum it’s gathering,” he said late last week at a news conference intended to drum up a little last-minute coverage of the largely grassroots campaign. He said he sees “a sense of urgency about education” funding needs as he talks to people around the state.
Because of that, he said, “I think you’re going to see very different voting patterns” than Democrats voting for Prop. 103 and Republicans voting against.
Among the lineup of supporters at the event was education reform advocate and former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. “Doing reform well costs money,” she said.
Heath likes to cite the high number of signatures gathered to get the proposition on the ballot (142,824, well above the 86,105 required) as evidence of under-the-radar support. He’s also fond of mentioning endorsements from small-town school boards and newspapers.
Straws in the Wind Lacking
Part of the reason so many observers are relying on the conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 is that the low-profile campaign doesn’t have most of the guideposts that accompany bigger campaigns–polls, intensive media coverage and the constant pounding of TV ads.
“It has been hard to handicap,” Sondermann admits.
Campaigners on both sides of the issue say they haven’t commissioned or know of any polls.
EdNews did find a poll released Oct. 11 by Public Policy Polling Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., a Democratic-oriented polling firm whose news release said, “This poll was not paid for or authorized by any campaign or political organization.”
The survey found 45 percent of respondents in favor of raising state tax rates for education, 47 opposed and 7 not sure.
The poll surveyed 510 Colorado voters Aug. 4-7, more than two weeks before Prop. 103 was certified for the ballot. The survey was an automated telephone poll and asked 20 questions on a variety of issues from approval of Hickenlooper and Colorado’s two U.S. senators to “Do you think prostitution should be legal or illegal?” Only one question was asked about education taxes, and it was 15th on the list.
Supporters of Prop. 103 have been running TV ads on five network stations and some cable channels in the Denver market. Heath said the campaign is designed so that an individual viewer will see the ad 10-12 times.
Mitchell said opponents have been doing some radio ads. Part of the opposition campaign is a bit underground, being run by Compass Colorado, a new Republican-oriented effort run by Tyler Houlton, a former staffer for various Republican campaigns and officeholders.
Because of its particular non-profit status, Compass doesn’t have to report its spending to the Department of State.
Both supporters and opponents have done some automated telephone calls.
Total campaign spending as of Oct. 12 was just under $500,000, most of that by supporters. Campaign committees had to file a new report this week. For the most part, the campaigns have consisted of Heath, Mitchell and other speakers criss-crossing the state, talking to political and community groups, attending candidate forums and making the usual appearances on TV public affairs shows and before newspaper editorial boards.
There’s also been a modest level of online campaigning, with individual supporters and opponents airing their views on blogs on YouTube.
Will Turnout Matter?
Several observers think turnout could be key. As of Friday, 619,000 Colorado voters had turned in ballots, according to the Department of State.
Supporters think could turnout could reach a million and that might help them.
Sondermann takes an opposite view. “The huge variable here that that turnout is not only going to be sparse but it could be abysmal. That increases the possibility that something surprising could happen.”
He continued, “Higher turnout might not be Rollie’s ally here. … That’s supposition.” The key, Sondermann said, may be which counties have the highest turnouts.
A factor in turnout may be tax elections in local school districts. Forty bond and tax override proposals are on ballots in more than 30 districts around the state, totaling more than $560 million. (Prop. 103 would raise more than $500 in higher taxes every year.)
Heath acknowledged that some district officials were concerned that negative voter attitudes about Prop. 103 could hurt local proposals. Now, he said, “They understand if this doesn’t pass they’re going to be in the hole” financially.
“If Rollie can get this thing passed, then all the conventional wisdom should be tossed out the window,” Sondermann said.
Proposition 103 is the only statewide ballot issue in Colorado this year.
Tuesday's off-year election also features 40 local tax-increase measures in 35 districts, which propose a total of more than $560 million in additional property taxes.
There are school board elections in scores of districts, with the attention focused on Denver, where heavily financed candidates who support the district's reform efforts are opposed by union-backed candidates. There also are closely watched board elections in two major suburban districts, Douglas County and Jefferson County.
Douglas County's conservative board this year passed a voucher program that later was thrown out in court. In Jefferson County, Republicans are pushing to elect a conservative majority to the board of the state's largest district.