What the Hell Went Wrong for Proposition CC?

Prop CC supporters had an early polling lead and a $4.2 million war chest, but Colorado voters handed the "de-Brucing" measure an eight-point defeat.
Prop CC supporters had an early polling lead and a $4.2 million war chest, but Colorado voters handed the "de-Brucing" measure an eight-point defeat. Chase Woodruff

Despite an early polling lead, a clear fundraising advantage and a long history of similar proposals passing at the local level, a ballot measure that would have weakened an anti-tax provision in the Colorado Constitution came up well short of the mark. How did it all go wrong for Proposition CC?

It became clear soon after polls closed on Tuesday, November 5, that Colorado voters had soundly rejected Proposition CC, which would have allowed the state to keep tax revenues in excess of year-to-year limits established by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1992. Known as “de-Brucing,” after TABOR architect Douglas Bruce, the measure would have given state budget writers an extra few hundred million dollars to work with in years of healthy economic growth — instead of automatically refunding that money to taxpayers, to the tune of around $50 for a typical single filer.

“If this isn’t the solution, we’re going to keep working on a solution,” House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder and one of the architects of Prop CC, told disappointed supporters at an election-night watch party. “Because it’s not acceptable for the state that has the number-one economy in the country to be doing the worst by its kids, by its students in college, and by our roads.”

Earlier this year, the stars appeared aligned for Prop CC’s challenge to TABOR, a sacred cow for Colorado conservatives and a constant source of frustration for liberals who say it severely limits the state’s ability to invest in education, transportation and more.

A historic “blue wave” in the 2018 election had given Colorado Democrats their tightest grip on power in eighty years, and asking voters to approve a statewide de-Brucing measure seemed like a natural first step. It was, after all, the same permission that voters in 51 out of Colorado’s 64 counties and 230 of its 274 municipalities have given their local governments in the years since TABOR’s passage. The proposal even picked up a small amount of bipartisan support, including from Republican Senator Kevin Priola, who co-sponsored the legislation that referred it to the ballot.

In the end, however, voters rejected Prop CC by more than eight points, according to the most recent results released by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. Rather than mark a defining, seismic shift in state politics, the failed measure goes down as another in a long list of Democratic disappointments in the post-TABOR era.

“We didn’t quite hit the bullseye,” says Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado and a Prop CC backer. “The bulls-eye is when you get agreement from the voters not only on what it is you’re trying to accomplish, but how it’s going to be accomplished. In Colorado, voters are the tax policy-makers. And it’s hard to get exactly the right thing in front of the tax policy-makers.”

Things were never going to be easy for the Yes on CC campaign, which faced an organized, motivated Republican opposition with the backing of the powerful, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity network. But supporters raised more than $4.2 million of their own, mostly from wealthy liberal donors like Pat Stryker and Daniel Ritchie, and the ballot fight seemed like theirs to lose. So how did they do just that?

The Special Session That Wasn’t

Proposition CC, which lawmakers referred to the ballot in April, would have eliminated TABOR caps beginning in the 2020-21 fiscal year. But after a June forecast showed better-than-expected revenue projections beginning this year, some top Democrats voiced support for amending the measure to include the 2019-’20 fiscal year, too.

Making the change would have required a special session of the legislature. With unified control of state government, Democrats had the power to convene one and pass a quick fix. But Governor Jared Polis and other party leaders put a strange pre-condition on any agreement to alter Prop CC in a special session: They wanted support from Republicans, only one of whom, Priola, had voted to refer it to the ballot in the first place. Negotiations reportedly stretched into August, with Democrats offering even a small income tax cut as a bargaining chip, but talks eventually broke down.

The result was that Prop CC stood to let the state spend $575 million less on education and transportation than it otherwise would have — but perhaps more important, the drawn-out negotiations may have delayed the rollout of the Yes on CC campaign. Polis and other top supporters formally kicked off their effort on October 2, just two weeks before Colorado voters received their mail-in ballots and four months after a coalition of conservative groups had launched their opposition campaign.

Muddled Messages and Semantic Squabbles

Quick: What was the pro-CC campaign’s message, in one sentence? It’s not an easy question to answer — though that’s not necessarily its supporters’ fault. “Tax policy is complicated stuff,” says Weil. “It’s much easier to get a no vote than a yes vote.”

But advocates for Prop CC were very clear about what it wasn’t; it was not, they said over and over again, a tax increase. Phrases like “without raising taxes” appeared in bold type on nearly every ad or mailer put out by the campaign. In a perfunctory three-minute speech at the Yes on CC launch event last month, Polis stressed four separate times that the measure contained “no new taxes."

As a result, discussion of Prop CC frequently devolved into a circular, irresolvable debate over whether or not eliminating TABOR caps — i.e., raising tax revenues but not tax rates — counted as a tax hike. After so many failed statewide tax measures over the last quarter-century, it’s easy to see why TABOR reformers leaned so heavily on the “Without raising taxes…” language that appeared on Coloradans’ ballots. But how much time did supporters spend on the defensive, arguing over semantics, that they could have spent making a positive case for greater investment in public services?

Yes on CC campaigners also cast blame on what they say was “misinformation” from opponents, most notably a series of online ads and mailers implying that Prop CC would tax refunds, period — including federal income-tax refunds, often much larger than automatic TABOR refunds. “Refunds are the only fun part of tax season,” read one opposition ad. “Prop CC would take the fun away. Forever.”

Last-Minute Desperation

While it likely came too late to matter at the polls, the only headlines made by Prop CC backers in the final days of the campaign were a sign of how badly things had gone. “Voting report cards” designed to pressure voters with the message that they had voted less often than their neighbors were sent to hundred thousands of Coloradans — including many who reported on social media that they hadn’t missed an election in years. Campaign officials told 9News’s Kyle Clark that a “data error” resulted in some of the 600,000 mailers being sent to voters with perfect voting records.

Go Big or Go Home?

In a statement on Prop CC’s defeat, Bell Policy Center president Scott Wasserman made clear that TABOR’s liberal critics aren’t giving up or lowering their expectations following Tuesday’s result. In fact, the opposite might be true.

“We learned a lot from this campaign, and it’s clear that those who are paid to protect TABOR over the needs of Coloradans will misrepresent whatever we put on the ballot,” Wasserman said. “Whatever we do next must be bold enough to drown out the alarmists.”

Many of Prop CC’s supporters were careful to stress throughout the campaign that the measure wasn’t a cure-all for Colorado’s fiscal woes. While it would have given the state’s general-fund budget a little more breathing room in most years, it would have done little on its own to raise Colorado’s lowest-in-the-nation teacher pay, lower cost burdens for students at public universities, or clear the Department of Transportation’s $9 billion backlog of maintenance and construction projects.

“Prop CC passing would have helped,” Colorado Fiscal Institute director Carol Hedges said in a statement. “But there remain deep inequities in our constitutional tax code that make it so people who earn low incomes — who are more likely to be people of color — pay higher overall tax rates than the wealthy. If we truly want to build a state that works for everyone, then we need to amend the constitution.”

Earlier this year, the Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling that paved the way for a ballot initiative proposing a full repeal of TABOR — which had previously been ruled a violation of the state constitution's "single subject" standard — to proceed, if petitioners, including Hedges, choose to do so. Wasserman and the Bell Policy Center, meanwhile, are working with other groups to potentially craft a proposal to replace the state's current flat tax rate of 4.63 percent with a more progressive tax structure, in which higher-income residents pay higher rates.

There's no telling exactly what Coloradans may end up voting on next year. But liberals are unlikely to pass up the opportunity to put a major fiscal-reform measure on the ballot in a presidential election year, when higher turnout will likely mean a much more favorable environment for Democrats.

“This isn’t the beginning or the end of anything,” Hedges told Westword as Prop CC's defeat became clear on election night. “This is the middle of a conversation about what’s best for Colorado.”
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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