Statewide Tax Elections
Governor Romer's "Children First" 1-cent sales tax initiative proposal of 1992 was the first to feel the voters' chilly rebuke. After a major effort by the education establishment and business trade associations, it received only 46 percent support. The same year brought approval of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights amendment (TABOR), which requires all tax increases and extensions, state and local, to be placed before voters. The amendment also allows for odd- number year tax elections for the first time. In 1993, the first off- year election, taxpayers defeated extension of a modest tourist tax used to market the state. Despite an expensive advertising campaign, it lost by 10 percent.
Nineteen ninety-seven brought two more elections requesting state- and metro- wide tax increases. Both lost handily. First, a 5-cent gas tax was abandoned by its supporters in early September when new state revenue projections showed a billion dollar surplus for at least a decade, eliminating the need for more highway taxes. The Colorado Transportation Network initiative had considerable opposition before withdrawal of the campaign effort, and received barely 16 percent of the vote in November. Colorado has never voted on an increase in the gas tax, and it appears unlikely an increase will be proposed or have a chance of passing for many years.
Second, the clearest and most recent evidence of voter unwillingness to support a major tax initiative was the Regional Transportation District's (RTD) "Guide the Ride" proposal. The $6 billion initiative, which would have raised the RTD sales tax of 0.6 cent to 1 cent, received support from most metro mayors, the Governor and much of the area's business associations and environmental organizations. But after a 5-month, $600,000 campaign, it gained a mere 42 percent support.
Given the past five years and four major tax proposal defeats, the presumption now is decidedly against new taxes.
Coloradans have not been universally anti-tax in recent years, especially at the local level. While RTD lost in the 1997 election, a half a billion dollars in school bonds passed, including a $265 million construction program for Jefferson County Schools. In 1994, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District extended its tenth of a cent sales tax in the region by 57 percent, which was down from 75 percent six years earlier.
Colorado Municipal League Colorado Counties Inc.
Colorado Municipal League Colorado Counties Inc.
Although local tax increases have faced resistance (about half passed), TABOR override elections (voter permission to spend tax revenue already collected in excess of TABOR limits) have fared extremely well with local voters, who approved 9 out of 10 proposals.
Local TABOR overrides benefit from voters who are more familiar with and favorably disposed to local rather than state or federal government. The requests are often modest, and sometimes specific to a service, facility or piece of equipment that will be purchased. The electorate has shown a willingness to allow government to spend money already collected, but reluctance to increase the tax rate.
There is a movement afoot to "De-Bruce" (pass a TABOR override) the growing state surplus. While voters appear to favor some type of dedication of state surplus revenue to transportation and/or K-12 school construction as reflected in polls, a statewide election will be more difficult than local TABOR overrides because the public has less connection with state government. The benefit becomes more amorphous and less immediate. Also, the larger the request, the more vulnerable it is to criticism of "more" government.
The defeat of major tax initiatives since passage of TABOR illustrates the growing culture of opposition. The initiative process has become the most direct vehicle of popular will and is being used increasingly to express resistance to government, especially tax and spending proposals.
The forces winning these elections today are part of an anti-tax and anti- government culture with spokespersons, strong networks, media allies and battle-tested arguments. The protagonists of this movement appeal to voters who are hostile to expanding government.
The successful initiatives of a decade ago, including the cultural and baseball stadium districts, the airport approvals, and Denver bonds for the Stock Show, Elitch Gardens, library and other civic projects, now appear difficult to duplicate. This political movement is already making more difficult the passage of a regional subsidy for a new football stadium.
The main features of the culture of opposition are illuminated through initiatives decided by Colorado voters since 1992.
Building a Wall
In passing tax limitation and the anti-gay rights initiatives in 1992, Colorado voters made use of the state initiative process to build a type of constitutional wall around their communities. Like communities putting up gates, the goal of this political "forting up" is to keep out undesired change and secure the community against assuming other areas' social and capital financial burdens. It reinforces the Western philosophy of individual action, and makes state and regional investments and planning nearly impossible.
Growth is an especially difficult issue to address in this environment. While population growth has accelerated, collective action, such as transportation investments, have been resisted. Trying to limit growth in one's own community appears the only available response and many communities are now considering or voting on residential growth caps.
Sending a Message
With trust in government at a low ebb, the initiative process has been used to send an anti-political message. Voters often cite in post-election polls "general distrust" of government as their primary motivation for negative votes in tax proposals. Such voting behavior is not only unrelated to the immediate issue at hand, its protests are often aimed at the wrong level of government; federal rather than state for example. Voters are sending an anti-government message to the Washington political establishment. The passage of tax limitation, term limits and campaign finance initiatives have as much, if not more, to do with hostility toward Washington and its political behavior than concern about Colorado state or local government.
Public/Private Partnerships Become a Conspiracy
In the early 1980s, a new political term came into vogue describing partnerships between government and business, especially real estate developers, called public/private partnerships. These relationships were designed to help the government achieve its goals while limiting the public cost by leveraging private investment and gaining entrepreneurial leadership and business management.
The concept created a new alliance in Colorado among businesses that foresaw benefits from economic development led by tax investments and ambitious political leaders of both parties. This partnership was especially potent in the recession and early recovery years from 1985 to 1991, helping to produce the airport, convention center and baseball stadium deals.
While there have been many achievements, the concept is increasingly seen as a raid on the public treasury by politically-connected interest groups. After years of criticism from anti-tax forces and opponents of particular projects, many voters now assume a conspiracy of well-heeled operators behind every infrastructure initiative. Campaign contributions are routinely looked upon as a source of conflict of interest and unfair advantage. This conspiracy theory of government creates a paradox of support: The more money and resources the establishment invests in a campaign, the more it activates media scrutiny, attracts criticism as insider dealing and feeds voter cynicism.
Denver International Airport (DIA) is usually cited by conspiracy theorists as the prime example of a project built for and by special interest groups. While much of the viewpoint is exaggerated, there is periodic evidence to lend it credibility. The well-funded power play by football stadium advocates in the State Legislature is the latest event fueling the conspiracy viewpoint. Today, government is often seen as a vehicle for private gain, not community problem solving.
Denver - Forget About It
Denver's rivalry with the metro suburbs remains intense. Initiative voting patterns have reflected suburban counties' opposition to proposals that benefit Denver. Denver's rough and tumble efforts to acquire DIA land, build new regional facilities and tout itself as the preeminent center of the state's economy and politics is a constant source of envy, frustration and hostility. The suburbs now represent 75 percent of the region's population and 65 percent of its retail business, but often feel they are not at the table for decisions that effect them. While some suburban leaders try to pull together with Denver for regional proposals, voters often don't follow.
Denver Media - Competition and New Players
The factual base upon which voters form opinions concerning public policy and initiatives is largely provided by media. The Denver media environment is congenial to the culture of opposition.
Because the initiative process is public and has political conflict, it attracts media coverage. And Denver's two competing newspapers and editorial pages make it more likely that one will align itself with the opposition position on any initiative. In addition, with two papers, opponents to government and establishment positions have more outlets for stories, and two sets of reporters with similar beats are more likely to search out and make political conflicts and government controversies into big stories.
Politically-oriented talk radio hosts, such as Mike Rosen, Peter Boyles, Marty Nalitz and Jay Marvin, and alternative newspapers, such as Westword, have gained followings and are powerful forums for critics of taxes, government and proposals backed by the political and business establishment.
The Political Transition
Governor Romer, as an activist Democrat, has been the catalyst for many of the major initiatives over the past decade. Some, like the two airport elections and Great Outdoors Colorado program, have been successful. Others have not. He strongly endorsed several failed initiatives: the education and tourist taxes earlier in the decade, the recently derailed CTN initiative and the failed RTD tax. With the end of his term in sight, power is beginning to ebb away from Governor Romer and toward a number of more conservative voices.
With that changing of the guard will come an even larger transition for Coloradans from liberal-leaning Democratic leadership to a shift to the right of Colorado's political center. That new political center will be more amenable to the opposition culture than to approval of large tax initiatives.
In keeping with the elements of the culture of opposition, the initiative process will grow as the primary vehicle to express voter preference and protest. In many ways, it has usurped the authority of representative government and undermined traditional mores of deference to the political establishment, its rules and precedents. And the culture of opposition increasingly dominates the process and advances its alternative view of the motives of government: not the protector and enhancer of peoples' lives, but a promoter of special interests that is hostile to individual aspirations.
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