Both Democrats and Republicans are hoping higher voter turnout for this year’s presidential election will play in their favor when it comes to fiscal issues on Colorado’s ballot in November.
Progressives are counting on energized opponents of President Donald Trump to support a statewide family and medical leave program and reject conservative proposals.
Those on the right are counting on the idea that even though voters are increasingly voting for Democratic candidates, they’ve been fiscally conservative when it comes to statewide ballot issues. The most recent example was last year’s failure of Proposition CC, which would have allowed the state government to keep tax revenues above the Taxpayer Bill of Rights-mandated spending cap rather than refund money to residents. In 2018, Coloradans rejected a measure that would only have increased taxes for those making more than $150,000 a year.
Conservative groups have brought forward two initiatives expected to be on the ballot in November: one to require voter approval for all fees for new programs that exceed $100 million in revenue in the first five fiscal years and one to reduce the state income tax rate from 4.63% to 4.55%.
Two other fiscal measures have at least some bipartisan support. A repeal of the state’s Gallagher Amendment would prevent residential property rates from dropping in future years. Another measure will ask voters to increase tobacco taxes and create a new nicotine tax for vaping.
“On the ballot issue front, especially when it comes to tax issues, we still are a center-right state regardless of how they vote for specific candidates or political parties,” said Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action.
Fields, who is leading the Initiative 295 campaign — the vote on fees — believes, like other political strategists in Colorado, that voters are more apt to accept tax increases at the local level where they know specifically how their money will be spent and when a tax will sunset.
“I think both with the tax cut and the fee issue, you have a time when the legislature is looking for every way to raise revenue to fill their budget deficit and even get more than that. And so as you see legislators that are desperate to get money in the door, I think voters want a say in that,” he said.
Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian Independence Institute, is leading the effort on Initiative 306, what he calls a “very mild” tax cut to attract employers to the state and rebuild an economy that’s taken a hit.
“I think people also understand that during this recession, having more of their own money helps their families, but on a very basic level understand Colorado’s in a competitive situation and we want to attract more employers here to rev the engine of Colorado,” he said.
The campaign refers to the measure as “The Real Fair Tax” — a play on another proposed 2020 ballot measure called “The Fair Tax,” which would have raised taxes on the wealthy and cut them for everyone else. The groups behind that effort weren’t able to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot because of difficulties with signature collections amid a pandemic.
Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center and proponent of the “Fair Tax” measure, calls Initiative 306 a tax cut for billionaires. It would only save the average Coloradan a few dollars, but public programs, including education, that have already seen pandemic-related budget cuts could take another big hit, he said.
According to a legislative council analysis, taxpayers will pay 1.7% less in state income tax, saving the average Coloradan about $37 in tax year 2020. A fiscal impact statement projected that the tax cut would result in a decrease of $78.1 million to the state in fiscal year 2019-20, $158.4 million in 2020-21 and $169.8 million in 2021-22.
Wasserman said Coloradans are choosing more Democrats for office, and that means they trust their ideas and vision for the state. So, while a tax cut or even forcing a vote on every new fee may sound like a good idea in theory, opponents will work hard to make sure people know what the measures will actually do to the state.
“Conservatives losing races are seeing it’s easy to pump money into the process to use very stark rhetoric and confuse voters,” Wasserman said.
Supporters see their work cut out for them when it comes to ballot language, but say they get voters’ support when they explain the measures.
It took three tries to pass TABOR, Fields noted. He’s hopeful the vote on fees will pass the first time but said the wording may be confusing to some, so it will at least open up a longer-term discussion on how fees are used.
“Voting on tax and fee increases keeps the power in people’s hands and not the politicians’ hands,” he said.
Caldara is optimistic the tax cut will pass.
“The presidential election will have a shadow on everything on the ballot, but I think what it’ll do is give people who vote against Trump a reason to still vote for Colorado’s economy,” he said. “Trump’s not going to win Colorado but will draw a lot of folks (to the election).”
The backers of paid family and medical leave are also counting on Trump to bring Colorado voters out — they just think the count will go their way.
“A lot of these initiatives and ballot measures are … of compassion, designed to help people and that is so anti who Trump is that people will be willing to make that call,” said Rev. Timothy Tyler. Tyler is the pastor at Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver.
The state-run leave program wouldn’t be supported by a tax but rather by regular contributions from employers and employees — a progressive proposal that some business groups oppose. Proponents say they expect it to pass because the need has been highlighted so clearly during the pandemic.
Democratic consultant Portia Prescott says both Democrats and Republicans are testing the waters with some of their ballot measures, seeing what will pass and what doesn’t quite make it but can be revised for future years.
Despite Colorado’s voting record on tax issues, Prescott believes voters are paying more attention during a presidential year made extraordinary because of COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement’s protests.
She thinks more people of color are energized to vote not only to get Trump out of office but also to support the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris.
“Before, you could pass so many different ballot initiatives and no one would pay attention,” Prescott said.
But now all of these issues, have, “for lack of a better word, made the average American more ‘woke’ on what is happening in legislation that directly affects their lives,” she added.
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