Colorado's Killer Message: Don’t Tax Me, Bro

Amy Oliver
|
Posted: Nov 04, 2011 12:01 AM

Everybody wants the Rocky Mountain high and the nine electoral votes that come with winning the state of Colorado in the 2012 presidential election.

Political pundits suggest that Colorado is “the king of swing states,” a “critical swing state,” and a “super swing state” because of the movement of our political pendulum from red to blue to purple in just the last decade, as well as our high number of unaffiliated voters.

President Obama has been here twice in the last month courting Colorado voters and the nine electoral votes that come with winning the Rocky Mountain state, but isn’t going to be as easy this time around.  It’s going to take more than just a slogan and some change.

The results of last Tuesday’s election sent an early and very clear, message. It’s the economy stupid!  Colorado voters told elected officials and big government advocates that they cannot balance their bloated budgets on the backs of working families. Got it, Congress? Super Committee? State legislatures? Local governments?

This year tax increases at the state and local level went down in flames. The Denver Post called the election-day fiscal bludgeoning a “killing field for tax measures.”

Statewide Tax Increase

Stateline news Web site labeled Colorado’s Proposition 103 the nation’s “most high-profile tax measure” for this election cycle. Supporters called the sales and income tax increase a “modest” measure to raise $2.9 billion over five years “for the children,” a temporary revenue stream supposedly earmarked for K-12 and higher education.

Stateline further predicted that, “the outcome is likely to be viewed as a barometer of attitudes toward the tough fiscal choices states have ahead.”  The godfather of Prop 103 State Senator Rollie Heath warned, that the results "'will be very telling to the rest of the country about how people are feeling.'"

Sen. Heath discovered that people don’t feel good. Voters didn’t just politely say “no” to Prop 103. They beat it to a bloody pulp. It couldn’t pass even in liberal Denver County. Statewide, voters rejected the “for the children” tax increase nearly 2 to 1 with almost 64 percent of voters saying “no.”

Sen. Heath has a patriarchal view of government. Two years ago he chaired the Long Term Fiscal Stability Commission on which I sat. We were charged with shoring up the state’s budget.  He constantly asked us, "What kind of Colorado do we want?" As if a chosen few have the right to force an answer for more than five million people, but that did not stop Sen. Heath from his constant advocacy for the bigger government he assumed Coloradans wanted.

Well, last Tuesday Colorado clearly answered Sen. Heath's question and rejected his patriarchal vision.  The resounding defeat within minutes of polls closing should tell the Senator and all other big government advocates that Coloradans demand that government live within its current means. If Colorado is the swing state and a barometer about “tough fiscal choices” for the future, then elected official would be wise to take the message seriously.

Two other points about Prop 103 are also important. First, the patriarchal Heath actually showed restraint with his tax increase because it was temporary, and $2.9 billion is much less than he wanted. Heath signed on to a majority report from the Fiscal Stability Commission that provided a taxpayer-funded Christmas wish list totaling more than $9 billion annually. So voters rejected even a modest Heath vision of Colorado.

Second, some big government advocates claim the tax measure went down because it wasn’t big enough. The Denver Post quotes Carol Hedges Director of the very liberal Colorado Fiscal Policy Center and Prop 103 supporter who claimed, “it's wrong to assume voters were sending a message that they are absolutely against tax increases…Some voters didn't think 103 was big enough or didn't like that it was only temporary…Some disliked that the measure didn't reinstate a graduated income tax.”

There is no way to spin this pretty for big government advocates. Losing by that wide of a margin means they lost independents, women, moms, and working families who didn’t buy the “it’s for the children” argument.  It’s hard to give more to government when putting food on the table is getting tougher. Tone-deaf elected officials who ignore this message do so at their own peril.

Local Government Tax Increases

Some taxpayers are more comfortable with local tax increases because their government is closer to them.  But last Tuesday Colorado’s local tax increases did not do well either. For school districts, voters approved only four of 22 property tax increases, one of eight bond issues, and five of 11 matching fund proposals according to the Loveland Reporter Herald.

One local Mill Levy Override (MLO) that went down badly was in the Thompson School District (TSD) in Loveland. Nearly 61 percent of the voters rejected the 12- year, $154 million property tax increase.

The TSD spokesperson Wes Fothergill explained, "’It was not a good year for this…" People feel they cannot take on more taxes. They do not see a bright light at the end of the tunnel as far as the economy goes.’”

The district’s arrogance didn’t help either.  There was no organized opposition to the tax increase until Nancy Rumfelt, a one-woman army at Liberty Watch (a 501c4), began asking questions.

Utilizing Colorado’s open record act (CORA), Ms. Rumfelt submitted requests for public information that were met with high costs and stall tactics. Frustrated because she couldn’t afford hundreds of dollars for public information, she organized a “Bake Sale for Transparency” to raise money to pay for the documents.

On a cool, rainy Saturday afternoon in early October, Ms. Rumfelt raised more than $1,000 by selling cupcakes, cookies and brownies donated by dozens of TSD taxpayers, enough to pay for the open records and several ads in the local newspaper.

Furthermore, the newspaper, which also opposed the tax increase, wouldn’t publish her guest editorial because it claimed she did not have proper standing as an “issue committee.” with the Secretary of State’s Office.

But for TSD the damage was done. The district immediately was on the defensive explaining why a citizen, from whom it was asking for more money, was having a bake sale to pay for something she and every other citizen have a right to see.

Supporters, which included the usual education establishment, complained they didn’t have enough time “to educate the community about the ballot issue,” and voters had a “perception” that the district is top-heavy.  Perhaps that perception comes from a rise in admin spending, as well as the district’s budget; or it could be the plethora of six figure salaries in a county with a per-capita income of $29,188.

Incumbent TSD school board member and tax increase supporter Karen Stockley lost her re-election bid to candidate Bob Kerrigan who openly opposed the MLO.  He even showed up at Ms. Rumfelt’s bake sale waving signs.

Ms. Stockley made the ridiculous statement that because voters in the state didn’t support tax increases, they must not support education.  Her reaction shows a stunning inability to read the attitude of voters and a lack of appreciation for what families are going through. 

If Colorado is the “super swing state” and “barometer of attitudes” toward tough fiscal choices, the message from the 2011 election results was loud and clear. Tax increases – even if they are “for the children” – will be killer issues for government and candidates.  Ignore that message at your own peril.

Amy Oliver Cooke is the founder of Mothers Against Debt (www. Mothersagainstdebt.com). She is also the director of the Colorado Transparency Project for the Independence Institute and writes on energy policy.  She can be reached at amy@i2i.org.