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A vehicle passes by a lawn sign calling for voters to cast ballots against a measure to dismantle part of Colorado's state tax laws. David Zalubowski / AP Images

Colorado Voters Reject Measure to Fund Education and Transit Through TABOR Refunds

Proposition CC fails, but the fight to unwind TABOR’s tax restrictions continues.

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Colorado may be leaning blue in recent years, but voters are holding their ground against attempts to collect additional statewide tax revenues to boost public spending. Proposition CC failed Tuesday with 55 percent of Coloradans rejecting the measure while 45 percent voted in favor.

The ballot measure asked voters to let the state keep tax revenue that exceeds limits set by Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) to spend on education and transportation, rather than refunding it to taxpayers (read our explainer here). After Proposition CC’s failure, Coloradans are projected to receive TABOR refunds ranging from $20 to $124 in tax year 2020, according to a September legislative forecast. No refunds are projected for the following two years as economic growth slows.

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Coloradans also rejected tax increases to fund education and transit in the 2018 midterm elections. And this year, beyond the statewide failure of Proposition CC, local voters also defeated tax increases in Arapahoe and Jefferson Counties.

Support for Proposition CC was strongest in the Front Range, where about two-thirds of Boulder and Denver voters approved the measure, and along the Western Slope. Separately, Proposition DD, which had broad bipartisan support to tax revenue on sports betting, narrowly won approval.

Proposition CC was more contentious, with the opposition benefitting from an early summer start to their campaign and traditionally low turnout by Democratic voters in an off-year election. By election night, Colorado voters returned more than 1.5 million ballots: Republicans led turnout with 530,225 ballots, while unaffiliated voters returned 492,950 ballots and Democrats returned 488,107 ballots, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Compared to 2015, unaffiliated voters saw a four-percentage point increase in turnout this year, while Republicans and Democrats each saw a two-percentage point drop, reports Magellan Strategies

While both parties generally agree on prioritizing funding for schools and transportation to keep pace with Colorado’s growth, Proposition CC’s failure shows that citizens strongly disagree on the best way to do so.

Colorado Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert (R-Parker) says the state’s education and transportation needs should be funded by the current state budget. “It’s time for Democrats to prioritize the money our state government already has and to finally fund our roads, bridges, and schools instead of creating new spending obligations,” he said in a statement.

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Gov. Jared Polis said Colorado voters’ consistent rejection of new funding mechanisms to improve roads and transportation sends a message to state lawmakers: “It’s clear that voters want elected officials to do more with their existing tools and legal authority,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats to develop new and innovative approaches to respond to the need to reduce traffic and congestion.”

Colorado House Speaker KC Becker (D-Boulder) supported the measure, which the Democratic-led state legislature referred to the ballot during the 2019 legislative session. She says that while Proposition CC was defeated, the larger battle over how to meet the needs of a fast-growing state will continue.

Democrats want to eliminate some or all of TABOR’s spending restrictions to enable public spending to keep up with Colorado’s rapid growth. Proposition CC proponents, including the Bell Policy Center, may seek new limits on TABOR on the 2020 ballot when Democratic turnout is traditionally higher, according to the Colorado Sun. “Whatever we do next must be bold enough to drown out the alarmists,” said Bell Policy Center president Scott Wasserman in a statement. “That work begins today.”

Colorado currently ranks between 40th and 45th nationwide for per-pupil K–12 spending and 48th for higher ed spending, according to Becker. “In transportation we are at the bottom of the barrel as well,” she told 5280 in October. Republicans counter that TABOR provides an effective restraint on Democratic overreach—a key campaign issue in Colorado’s upcoming 2020 elections.

Becker says House Democrats are committed to finding new bipartisan funding solutions in the next legislative session. “We may have lost this battle, but the issues of underfunded roads and schools remain with no easy solution in sight,” she said in a statement. “I hope that those who opposed Prop CC will work with us to find real solutions to these basic challenges for the better of all Colorado.”

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