Denver Post: Pivotal Colorado Tax Question Could Hinge on Three Words

Denver Post: Pivotal Colorado Tax Question Could Hinge on Three Words

The campaigns both for and against Proposition CC say they expect a nail-biter election night next Tuesday that could well be swung by three words: “Without raising taxes.”

October 30, 2019

Pivotal Colorado tax question could hinge on three words

Polling suggests Prop CC has language on its side

The campaigns both for and against  say they expect a nail-biter election night next Tuesday that could well be swung by three words: “Without raising taxes.”

As Colorado heads into the final week of voting, the language of the two statewide ballot measures is getting even more scrutiny than usual.

Through CC, voters are being asked to let the state keep in perpetuity any tax revenues above the state spending cap, which the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) currently guarantees as refunds to taxpayers. It’s the measure that has caused a fracas over phrasing.

The other, , proposes to legalize and tax sports gambling, and has broad bipartisan support despite language that may give some voters pause.

TABOR doesn’t always result in statewide refunds — the last one came in 2015 — but there’s a lot of potential money at stake with CC: The governor’s office projects refunds at $1.7 billion over the next three years combined, while nonpartisan state economists project a sum closer to $550 million. Individual taxpayers could see refunds as low as $20 or as high as $248 through 2022, according to projections.

The fiscally conservative, anti-CC movement calls this a de facto tax increase, since the measure proposes to let the state hang onto money that would otherwise go back to taxpayers. The “pro” campaign, which includes the Democratic governor and House speaker, notes that CC would not raise anyone’s taxes, but rather would allow the state to hang onto revenues it has already collected.

One thing both sides agree on is that the language of CC could well decide the election.

“I think if CC passes, it can be attributed 100% to those first three misleading words,” said George Brauchler, the district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, and one of the main spokespeople opposing CC.

, CC asks, in all caps: “Without raising taxes and to better fund public schools, higher education, and roads, bridges, and transit, within a balanced budget, may the state keep and spend all the revenue it annually collects after June 30, 2019, but is not currently allowed to keep and spend under Colorado law, with an annual independent audit to show how the retained revenues are spent?”

Said Brauchler: “If my neighbors read ‘without raising taxes,’ and then they read the followup language about improving all the things that have broad bipartisan support, they, and everyone I know, would jump all over it and say, ‘How do we vote for this twice?’”

Polling consistently shows Colorado voters want better roads and schools, but those voters have also consistently rejected statewide ballot measures seeking more tax revenue to pay for those things.

Previous failed measures began, “Shall taxes be increased” — opening words that are required by TABOR, and that many believe spell doom for any statewide ballot measure.

Proposition DD opens with those words, but it is not expected to be a threat to passage because the increase would fall on casinos rather than citizens.

House Speaker KC Becker agrees with Brauchler that the language of CC is appealing. The Democrat-controlled state legislature voted last year on the language .

“Our language is accurate, and I think it’s compelling,” Becker said. “If that frustrates the opponents, well, we’re being totally honest.

“We aren’t increasing taxes. We aren’t creating a new tax or a new tax rate. We’re simply asking: Can we keep the revenue already being sent to us?”

Neither side of the CC debate will share internal polling numbers. Colorado Rising Action Executive Director Tilor Ridge, who is anti-CC, said only that he thinks it will be a “dead heat.” Curtis Hubbard, a consultant whose firm, OnSight Public Affairs, is working to help CC pass, says he expects a close election.

But the Republican firm Magellan Strategies released figures in August  54% of respondents said they would vote for Proposition CC, after a pollster read them the measure’s language.

In campaign time, August is a lifetime ago; the pro-CC campaign  a few weeks ago. But, Magellan’s David Flaherty said the poll’s findings speak to the appeal in CC’s phrasing.

“The ballot language is extremely well-written, everyone agrees. It’s brief, it’s easy to understand,” he said. “And it’s extremely well-written in order to create support.”

If Brauchler and Fields had their way, CC would include some or all of the following: “refund,” “permanently” and “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.”

And it certainly wouldn’t open the way it does.

“We could literally lose this because of those three words,” Fields said.

Becker responded: “They want to make things more confusing for voters. They want the language to be slanted in their direction. But our language is very clear on what the measure does, how the money gets spent. That was our responsibility and that’s what we’ve done.”


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