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Transportation Political Gridlock Broken
November 1999
by Floyd Ciruli

After 10 years of saying "no" to tax increases and more government, Colorado voters end the decade in a more generous mood. Reversing the trend of three previous transportation votes, they finally said "yes" to more spending for highways and light rail. In past years, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 5 cent fuel tax increase slated for projects similar to this year's TRANS package (1997) and said "no" to spending $1 billion of the state surplus for roads and school upgrades (1998). In addition, metro voters crushed a multi-billion dollar sales tax increase of 4 tenths of a cent for light rail and transit (1997).

Colorado Major Tax/Spending Elections
Year Tax/Spending Support % Area
1992 Sales Tax - K-12 Schools 46% Statewide
1993 Tourist Tax Extension 45% Statewide
1992 Fuel Tax - 5 cents 16% Statewide
1992 RTD - 0.4 Cents 42% Metro
1992 TABOR Override - Road/School Projects 38% Statewide
1992 TRANS Bonds - Federal Gas Tax 62% Statewide
1992 RTD Bonds - TABOR Override 66% Metro
Ciruli Associates, 1999

As the new millennium begins, Colorado voters broke the political gridlock and decided to get traffic moving. The TRANS bond proposal swept the state with 62 percent, carrying every large county and 44 of the 63 counties (one tied). The victory came after Governor Bill Owens and his team lost their initial effort to borrow money for roads by statute, then quickly switched their tactics to gamble on a state referendum. Governor Owens has gained substantial political strength by fulfilling his key election promise.

RTD, as one of the metro area's most controversial organizations, scored an amazing win after its 58 percent defeat only two years earlier. The turnaround reflected a less controversial Board, a more modest proposal than in the past, and the benefit of association with the governor's road campaign.The following are factors that affected the result:

More Congestion and Good Economy
Frustration with congestion and traffic gridlock continued to grow even while voters rejected various government proposals to fix the problem. Transportation remained among the top two or three concerns that voters wanted the state to address.

In addition, a feel-good era based on eight years of strong economic growth has put voters in a mood to solve problems and reduce the anti-tax, anti-government themes that dominated the start of the decade.

Transportation Election
Results 1998 - 1999
Adams 32% 57%
Arapahoe 41% 73%
Boulder 49% 57%
Denver 44% 66%
Douglas 39% 77%
El Paso 31% 60%
Jefferson 38% 69%
Larimer 45% 60%
Mesa 29% 55%
Pueblo 14% 52%
Weld 36% 60%
State Total 38% 62%
Ciruli Associates, 1999
No New Taxes

As Doug Bruces' TABOR tax limitation effort demonstrated, repeated election attempts are important for educating voters and fine-tuning ballot language. The key factor in the successful formula devised first by the governor and then copied by RTD was the use of existing taxes. The highway proposal, with its federal gas tax repayment, was not a major concern for voters. Debt appeared less objectionable than new taxes.

Although the RTD proposal used TABOR surplus revenue, which was the bane of the 1998 state effort, opposition arguments were undermined by the fact that this election extended an already existing TABOR override and that there was little emphasis on how much money voters were giving up in refunds.

Another lesson of the tax limitation efforts of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is that repeated elections dull the opposition case, making the arguments sound repetitious, tired and off-point.

New Republican Governor
A Republican governor popular among his colleagues and his party provided a credible advocate that disarmed many tax- and debt-wary fiscal conservatives. There were no high-profile Republicans, normally opposed to more government spending, who came out against the proposal.

Owens was also able to craft a rural and non-metro support base that attracted, or at least neutralized, economic and political groups that normally oppose initiatives that largely benefit the Denver metro area.

Democrats, while not enthusiastic, saw little political benefit in opposing what appeared to be a popular solution to a major public concern. In fact, high-profile Democrats such as former governors Romer and Lamm supported the proposal.

The statewide TRANS proposal added 24 percentage points in one year to Governor Roy Romer's 1998 TABOR override defeat. The proposal carried every major county, including Pueblo and Mesa, which gave the 1998 TABOR override only 25 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Even Boulder, which typically disparages more roads, gave the Republican governor's proposal a 57 percent victory.

Not surprising, Democrats were more supportive of the metro light rail proposal than were Republicans; but Republicans were the bedrock of support for the governor's TRANS initiative. The 9NEWS/KOA News Radio/Denver Post survey also showed women were slightly more pro-transit than men, whereas men were 10 percentage points more supportive of the roads proposal.

RTD Tax Elections
% Yes
County Tax Increase 1980 TABOR Override
TABOR Override 1995 Tax Increase 1997
Bonds/ TABOR Override 1999
Adams 38% 42% 41% 24% 44%
Arapahoe 49% 46% 55% 44% 74%
Boulder 49% 53% 63% 40% 65%
Denver 48% 52% 51% 50.4% 73%
Douglas 42% 52% 55% 47% 76%
Jefferson 43% 46% 52% 43% 61%
Total 46% 48% 53% 42% 66%
Ciruli Associates, 1999

Roads and Trains

The two proposals, highways and light rail, benefitted from being on the ballot at the same time. Infighting among highway and transit proponents was minimal. By working cooperatively the proponents enhanced credibility among each other's respective supporters and buffered each other from potential opponents.

RTD's proposal in particular was buoyed by the governor's support. Also, RTD's lower profile and less controversial Board made a more elusive target for opponents.

While the RTD proposal gained formidable margins in the south metro area, it also carried Jefferson and Boulder counties, which are less immediate beneficiaries of the I-25 improvements. Only Adams County continued to resist appeals for regional transit investments.

Massive Fund-raising and Campaigning
Spending in favor of ballot issues seldom rescues politically vulnerable initiatives. In fact, the victorious opponents in the 1997 and 1998 transportation elections were highly out-spent by supporters. But successful fund-raising can be a sign of support and help craft a persuasive message that makes victory more likely. Supporters of this year's transportation ballot initiatives dominated fund-raising, endorsements and campaign media. Opponents fund-raising and endorsement efforts were stymied by the governor's support for both of the transportation initiatives and by the sense that the proposals had a better chance than previous attempts.

Metro Turnout
1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999
County 1993
1999 Turnout
Adams 43,725 41,961 44,568 46,688
Arapahoe 93,526 88,985 90,525 102,201
Boulder 56,006 59,973 56,242 51,812
Denver 33,430 64,891 64,946 81,486
Douglas 21,650 12,753 11,934 34,427
Jefferson 110,920 102,329 112,832 43%
Total 46% 48% 53% 121,427
Ciruli Associates, 1999
Mailback Voting and Metro Turnout

Mailback voting in Douglas and Arapahoe counties provided a high turnout base of votes for RTD. The strong metro turnout helped the statewide highway proposal. (62% support statewide and 66% support in metro area).

Denver's high turnout reflected the millions spent in high-profile local bond and cable franchise elections. Only Boulder, which rejected mailback voting, saw its turnout decline.

Political and Policy Victories
The governor achieved major policy and political victories and established a strong platform for his leadership. His team is now in a powerful position to influence the next legislative session and state politics in general as the millennium begins. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb also is riding high on the success of Denver's cultural and economic bond proposals, as well as his cooperation with Owens' transportation proposal. Webb has enhanced his clout and dominance over Denver politics as he begins his last term. Also, Denver secured its position as the state's civic investment capital with the overwhelming success of its local ballot initiatives.

The success of the two transportation proposals was a confluence of significant and — for proponents — fortuitous factors: continued gridlock, a strong economy, repeated elections, weak opposition, a new governor and proposals with little tax impact. Policy entrepreneurs should not assume that Colorado voters are now in the mood for new large-scale tax or spending programs. At the same time these transportation projects were approved, numerous local tax and spending proposals were defeated. While voters appear in the mood to address big problems, they continue to maintain high levels of government distrust and tax resistance.

Victory for Transportation
November 2, 1999

Good Economy; More Gridlock; Multiple Elections; New Proposals; New Governor;
Major Factors Affecting Passage of TRANS and Light Rail

  • Frustration with congestion increased while good economy lessened the anti-government and anti-spending attitudes that dominated earlier in the decade.

  • No tax increase left opponents unable to clearly articulate the downside. Government debt not that controversial. RTD's TABOR surplus less a target than state's.

  • Republican governor neutralized conservative opposition and attracted Republican and non-metro support. Built a bi-partisan coalition.

  • Both proposals more defined. RTD plan more modest. Multiple elections educated public and advocates. Opposition sounded repetitious and off-point.

  • Highways and transit working together boosted credibility among each other's respective supporters and buffered each other from opponents. Lower profile and less conflict among RTD Board members.

  • Significant fund-raising and campaign advertising. Republican governor's endorsement helped keep opponents wallets closed.

  • Major victory for Governor Owens and his policy and political team.

  • Mayor Webb maintained his Denver clout. City and state invested in its future at the Millennium.

Ciruli Associates, 1999

Related Links: The Culture of Opposition | RTD, Never a Smooth Ride | Public Wants Transit but Not at Any Price


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