State's school measure defeated

Only Boulder supported raising taxes for education

La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker called this year's turnout “very impressive” for an odd-year election. “People are so much more sensitive to tax increases, and it's hitting home in these economic times so much more,” she said. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker called this year's turnout “very impressive” for an odd-year election. “People are so much more sensitive to tax increases, and it's hitting home in these economic times so much more,” she said.

DENVER – Proposition 103, a state senator's improbable campaign to convince voters to raise taxes statewide for education, failed Tuesday by a 2-to-1 margin.

Backers conceded defeat an hour after polls closed. Prop 103 failed 36 percent to 64 percent, with nearly all precincts reporting. The measure was losing in every large county in the state except Boulder. Even Denver, where voters often are willing to raise taxes, handed the measure a lopsided defeat. State Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, wrote Prop 103 after Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed record cuts to schools last spring.

“We had hoped people were ready to stand up,” Heath said. “Clearly they weren't. But let's hope that we all come together to solve the problems because they aren't going to go away, and we've got to do this for our kids.”

Penn Pfiffner, head of the opposition campaign Too Taxing for Colorado, said voters are tired of putting more money into schools without seeing better results.

“Clearly we dodged a bullet that would have hurt the economy, but now is the time to try to change how we deliver education,” Pfiffner said.

Prop 103 sought to raise income and sales taxes to 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, up from their current rates of 4.63 percent and 2.9 percent.

During the five-year life of the tax increase, budget experts predicted it would have raised $2.9 billion. Prop 103 earmarked the money to be used only for public schools and colleges.

Earlier Tuesday, Hickenlooper submitted his yearly budget to the Legislature. It calls for a $97 million cut to K-12 schools and a $77 million cut to public colleges.

Heath's campaign was hobbled from the start by a lack of support from powerful allies.

Hickenlooper never supported Prop 103, although he noticeably softened his tone as the year went on.

He began his administration by repeating that Coloradans have “no appetite” for a tax increase, but in recent days he has called himself “sympathetic” to Heath's aims.

Turnout statewide was lower for the off-year election than it was during 2010's high-profile Senate race, but Pfiffner credited campaign volunteers for getting out the vote against Prop 103 in the crucial Denver suburbs.

Minimal spending kept the campaign out of sight of many voters. Heath's committee, Support Our Schools for a Bright Colorado, raised and spent about $600,000 – a low sum for a statewide campaign.

Two opposition groups raised just $25,000 between them. The biggest donor to the pro-103 side was the Gary Williams Co., a Denver oil company that funds the Piton Foundation.

The Colorado Education Association, a teachers' union, gave $75,000, and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy added $70,000. The latter group had pushed its own tax hike ballot measure this year before withdrawing it to support Heath's.

Both sides were looking to future campaigns Tuesday night.

Heath praised his allies for building momentum for the cause during the campaign and urged them to put their energy toward a “big fix” – a permanent revenue increase that might include a rewrite of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and other amendments to the constitution.

But he conceded that he would need more powerful allies.

“We've got to all come together, because trying to do the quote-unquote big fix is going to be a very difficult task. We need as broad a coalition as we can possibly pull together,” Heath said.

Pfiffner, too, said his group's campaign should not end on election night, and Prop 103's defeat should be an occasion for “sober reflection” about the public-education system and ways to revamp it without pushing more money into it.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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