Tuesday, 1 Dec 2020

Colorado voters befuddle leaders with decisions on money issues

Within Colorado’s rapidly shiftuting, previously bellwether Jefferson County, voters spoke loud and clear in favor of reelecting Democratic District 19 state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who won by more than 18 points just four years after winning by about two points.

But in a 25-point swing in the other direction, voters in that same county supported a fiscal policy — Proposition 116, the flat income tax cut — opposed by Zenzinger and most Democrats.

Jefferson County voters also approved new, conservative-backed restrictions on the legislature’s ability to set certain fees (Prop 117), a nicotine and vaping tax increase backed by liberals (Prop EE), a repeal of the Gallagher Amendment (Amendment B), and a massive new spending program that will provide paid family and medical leave to workers (Prop. 118).

Each measure passed statewide — none was even close, other than Prop 117, which had a five-point margin — leaving all sides with wins to cheer about and losses to mourn. A diverse array of counties supported all five measures, including Pueblo, Larimer, Arapahoe and Garfield.

The mixed bag has many still scratching their heads in futile search for any common thread.

“I honestly don’t know what to make of the disconnect, other than saying it’s quintessential Colorado,” Zenzinger said. “I’m very pleased that we saw progress on many fronts. As a state budget writer, I’m also shaking my head a little bit.”

What the election did make clear, yet again, is that there is no liberal lockstep in Colorado on fiscal matters, even as Democrats continue to dominate elected positions. It leaves Democratic officials like Zenzinger with a confusing mandate: Lead the way, but don’t expect the financial resources to execute your agenda.

“Going forward, we have to be very, very mindful that people want us to govern, to be problem solvers, to address their concerns,” she said, when asked what mandate her party received last week. “But at the same time, we need to keep a watchful eye on the fact that people’s economic security really has an outsized impact on how they vote and how they see our role in the legislature.”

This is comforting to Republicans who haven’t had faced such an electoral deficit in Colorado since before World War II.

“They’re leaning blue when it comes to elected officials, but they still want a say in revenue increases,” said Michael Fields, executive director of the conservative Colorado Rising Action, and a de facto spokesman for fiscally conservative ballot measures here. “This is one of the first times when we’ve been on the offensive, with two things on the ballot that we got passed. We look at it and say, ‘What’s the next thing we can do?’ We’re going to keep chipping away.”

“A missed opportunity”

Denver Democrat Alec Garnett, who last week was named the next speaker of the Colorado House, admits that the Republicans are on to something with a “chipping away” approach. Prop 116, the income tax cut, reduced the flat statewide rate by 0.08%, or roughly $150 million annually.

Some Democrats had aspired to place on the ballot this year a measure that would’ve installed a new, progressive income taxation schedule in Colorado and raised about $2 billion annually. The coalition for this measure was never strong, though, and its signature-gathering operation fizzled amid the pandemic.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity for us not to have gotten something on the ballot,” said Garnett. “What I’ve always struggled with is how big the swing has been to try to hit a home run on the first pitch over the past years.

“I’ve always advocated behind the scenes that I want to make progress and take advantage of these moments we’re seeing in the state, but a little nervous about the size of some of these packages,” he said. “… I think the bigger you go, the smaller the coalition is that rallies.”

Dismayed as liberal leaders are at what they see as a blown opportunity on this year’s ballot, they are encouraged by how potent direct democracy still is in Colorado. Passage of paid family leave is a wide-reaching policy shift, and it passed because it’s a popular proposal that had strong financial backing and a progressive coalition. The Gallagher Amendment repeal, which will allow for a rebalance in property taxes, had even more broad support, including from some Republicans.

The Democratic polling firm Keating Research in May found that 69% of respondents to a 600-person survey supported the idea of a more progressive approach to income taxes, in which people making more than $250,000 pay a higher rate. And so there is faith that a progressive tax reform measure — or perhaps, as Garnett suggests, a less ambitious version — can be viable in a coming election.

The flip side of that coin, however, is that conservatives, off a couple wins this cycle, won’t slow down, either.

“We definitely have to look to (ballot measures) to provide that accountability,” Fields said. “That’s our avenue right now, and we have to use it.”

The 2020 election results have reminded both sides what an exciting wild card direct democracy can be, both for better and worse.

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