Lessons to learn from Tuesday's election
Tuesday's election didn't go the way we hoped. The Bell strongly supported Proposition 103, and we are deeply disappointed it failed.
We thank those who worked so hard – especially Sen. Rollie Heath, whose leadership, passion and energy made believers out of so many. Thanks also to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy and Great Education Colorado, whose grass-roots campaign turned thousands of Coloradans into activists.
As with any election, there are lessons to be learned – not all of which are clear at this early date. Here are some of our thoughts. We'd love to hear yours as well.
1. Multiple factors helped defeat 103. Some, like the poor economy, are transient – unique to this moment in history. The results of so many local measures on the same ballot show voters were in the mood to say "no" to a wide range of issues, and it would be wrong to interpret the vote as an enduring anti-tax mandate. In a different economy, the results may have been much better.
2. Colorado is the only state that requires voter approval to increase taxes, placing great responsibility on Colorado voters. We have yet to find a way, at least at the state level, to have the conversations we need around these issues. Voters have increased certain targeted taxes (like the tobacco tax in 2004) and allowed the state to keep "excess" revenues (as with Referendum C in 2005). But since TABOR passed almost 20 years ago, we have never increased a general purpose tax statewide.
3. When we have succeeded on statewide fiscal issues (as with passing Referendum C in 2005 or defeating the "Bad Three" in 2010), it has been with broad, bipartisan and geographically diverse coalitions. We are more likely to succeed when we can remove partisanship (and regionalism) from the conversation.
A single election is a snapshot in time and never the last word. That's good, because a recent report from the nonpartisan Center for Colorado's Economic Future affirms once again that Colorado faces a structural imbalance between revenues and expenditures that, left unchecked, will squeeze out funding for everything but schools, prisons and Medicaid in just 13 years.
Either we completely sever state funding for entire public systems – like colleges and universities, courts and child protective services – or we find a way to increase state revenues. That's the choice, and the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.
The Bell's been at this awhile, and we've had successes along the way. But we all have a great deal left to do.
Perhaps the most important lesson from the election is that there is no real shortcut to a solution. For increased revenues to be a part of the solution, they have to pass muster with the voters. And we can't just wait for the next proposal to come along to mount a campaign. We have to work together as Coloradans who share a common responsibility for ensuring our state remains a great place to live, work and raise a family. We have to build momentum and create the conditions that will make it more likely a tax increase will pass.
Finding effective and enduring methods for accomplishing that is our top priority at the Bell. If we are to protect and expand opportunity in Colorado, which is our core mission, we need an adequately funded public-sector partner. And to have that, we need to convince Colorado voters it is worth investing once again in the public sector.
Right now, that seems to be a tall order. But the alternative is unacceptable to us. And so we keep working. And we hope you will, too.
Those are our thoughts. We would love to hear from you.
The Bell Policy Center Staff