Coloradans Increasingly Support Higher Taxes on the Rich

With Denver teachers angry over low pay and striking for the first time in 25 years, there are signs that Colorado’s decades-long decline in education funding may have finally become a crisis. And a new poll finds that Coloradans increasingly favor a simple solution to the state’s long-running fiscal problems: higher taxes on the rich.

Sixty percent of Coloradans want to raise taxes on “the wealthy and big corporations” to pay for early childhood education programs, according to a Keating Research poll commissioned by the Bell Policy Center. A slightly smaller majority of 58 percent supports doing the same to “provide free pre-school for all children in Colorado.”

The results show a slight increase in support from a previous survey conducted in November 2018, which found that 57 percent of of Coloradans favored higher taxes on the rich “to provide more education, health and child care funding.” And they suggest one possible path to funding some of the top priorities for new governor Jared Polis, who ran on a promise of universal pre-K and has aggressively lobbied lawmakers to fund full-day kindergarten for all Colorado children by the end of this legislative session.

The poll’s findings, of course, don’t exactly match up with the reality of how Colorado voters cast their ballots last year. Amendment 73, which would have raised $1.6 billion annually for education through a series of modest tax increases on corporations and people making over $150,000 a year, garnered only 46 percent of the vote, well short of the 55 percent it needed to pass as a constitutional amendment. But by the standards of tax hikes on the Colorado ballot, that represents a big improvement.

“When it comes to anything in Colorado, you have to look at it through the lens of [the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights],” says Elliot Goldbaum of the Colorado Fiscal Institute. “Forty-six percent was well beyond anything for tax increases that we’d seen in the past.”

In the 27 years since TABOR’s passage, Colorado voters have only very rarely approved statewide tax increases, often rejecting them by huge margins. That was the case with Amendment 66, an ambitious overhaul of state education financing that lost by thirty points in 2013. Amendment 73’s backers view the level of support it received as progress, especially given that proponents were outspent by a nearly two-to-one margin.

“The campaign did a great job in terms of reaching out to communities, including a lot of rural school districts that were in support,” says Goldbaum. “But when you don’t have ten or twenty million dollars and you’re fighting a side that does, it’s difficult.”

As the teachers’ strike and other #RedForEd activism over the past year has made clear, there’s no end to Colorado’s long-running fiscal problems in sight — and, as ever, a variety of efforts to relieve the budget crunch are currently taking shape. A proposal to repeal TABOR entirely, led by the Colorado Fiscal Institute’s Carol Hedges, is awaiting appeal at the Colorado Supreme Court after the Secretary of State’s Title Board blocked it from the ballot last month. Colorado House Speaker KC Becker, meanwhile, has endorsed more limited TABOR reforms, including a so-called “de-Brucing” measure to allow the state to retain additional tax revenues, which could be referred to voters as soon as this November.

And one day soon, progressives hope, voters will finally repeal TABOR’s little-known flat-tax requirement and return Colorado to a graduated income tax that taxes higher earners at higher rates.

Colorado voters, after all, say that’s what they want. And if you don’t believe progressives who say the rich need to be taxed more — just ask the rich. Monday's survey found that affluent Coloradans are the least likely income group to say their tax burden is too high, with only a quarter of those making over $100,000 a year telling pollsters that they pay too much in taxes.

Update, February 14: We’ve clarified the date of a previous finding by a Keating Research poll conducted in November 2018.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff