Colorado money dollars piggy bank revenue

Most Colorado voters are in favor of a ballot measure that would allow the state government to hang onto surplus tax revenue for transportation and schools rather than refund it under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a new poll shows.

Magellan Strategies, a Republican-aligned firm based in Louisville, found in its survey of 500 voters that 54% support Proposition CC, a measure placed on the November statewide ballot by the legislature that would let the state permanently retain extra revenue that would otherwise be refunded to taxpayers under TABOR to spend on education, roads, bridges and transit.

Another 30% of voters said they would vote no on CC and 15% said they didn't know how they would vote.

The ballot measure was read to those surveyed before they were asked their opinion.

Support for CC was much stronger among Democrats (72%) and unaffiliated voters (60%) than among Republicans (32%), according to the Magellan poll, results of which were released Wednesday.

Under TABOR, a constitutional amendment passed in 1992, the state is supposed to refund excess revenue to taxpayers once certain caps are exceeded. Those caps are set by formulas that are adjusted for population growth and inflation.

The caps tend to kick in only in flush years when state tax revenue rises above typical levels.

According to unexpectedly rosy revenue forecasts in June from state economists, Colorado taxpayers could be eligible for TABOR refunds of as much as $1.3 billion over the next three years.

The pollsters said in a podcast discussing the survey results that the ballot measure's wording could increase its likelihood of passing, since it doesn't mention TABOR or specify how much money the state might keep.

The proposed amendment begins: "Without raising taxes and to better fund public schools, higher education and roads, bridges, and transit, within a balanced budget ..."

"This is some clever language," said Magellan CEO David Flaherty.

"It matters how these questions are written," said Ryan Winger, director of data analysis for the firm, which routinely surveys voter opinion on tax questions for municipalities, school districts and special districts.

"If you're telling me this isn't going to raise taxes, you've already got my attention," he added.

Flaherty noted that although a majority of likely voters say they would vote for the measure, its support falls bellow the level ballot measures typically need this far from an election.

"Even though support right now is at 54%, the old adage is, you really want any ballot measure in the state of Colorado at 'yes' being in the upper 50s or 60%," Flaherty said.

With about two months to go before voters get their ballots in the mail, Winger said both sides have a chance to make their case.

"This one's right in that zone where the campaign for the next two months matters, right? What are the arguments for and against CC? It's not so lopsided one [way] or the other that it doesn't happen what happens in the next two month. It does matter," he said.

The Magellan pollsters found that 59% of those surveyed said they were at least somewhat familiar with the TABOR amendment but only 20% said they were very familiar with the measure.

"Among those who are very, somewhat or not too familiar, 46% have a favorable impression of TABOR while 36% have an unfavorable opinion and 18% don’t have an opinion," Flaherty said in a report on the poll results.

The poll found that 47% of voters surveyed would favor an even broader measure than CC allowing the state to retain and spend a tax surplus without stating a reason, versus 39% who would oppose such a measure.

But when asked if they would favor full repeal of TABOR, only 36% said yes while 48% said no, the poll indicated.

"We believe the survey findings validated a popular belief that the full repeal of TABOR, even in a presidential election cycle with significant unaffiliated and younger voter turnout, is unlikely," Flaherty said in the poll report. "However, it remains to be seen if a well-funded voter education campaign to weaken or repeal TABOR would be effective."

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in June that a ballot measure to repeal TABOR, proposed by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, does not violate a state constitutional provision limiting future ballot measures to one subject. But that measure has not so far advanced to the petitioning stage.

Earlier this month, the federal 10th Circuit Court Court of Appeals reversed a lower court and revived a 2011 lawsuit filed by several state legislators and local city, county and school officials to overturn TABOR. The officials argued that TABOR's cap on taxing and spending violates the U.S. Constitution, which gives tax-setting power to a representative, or republican, form of government.

The legislation placing CC on the ballot says a third of the retained revenue would go to K-12 schools, a third to higher education and a third to transportation. The measure applies to tax revenue collected after June 30 of this year.

Under the measure, an "annual independent audit" would be conducted to "show how the retained revenues are spent."

The legislature's Democratic leaders say CC is needed to fund vital education services and to make a dent in the state's backlog of transportation improvement needs. Two measures that would have created new ways to fund transportation failed in last November's election, as did a new tax to fund schools.

But TABOR supporters say CC is an attempt to circumvent the will of voters who passed the amendment. They say the state should pay for services out of existing funds by making cuts elsewhere rather than tap TABOR refunds. And they question whether the retained revenue will actually be spent on education and transportation as stated.

Voters in many Colorado cities and counties have passed measures allowing them to retain TABOR tax refunds. Passage of such measures is called "de-Brucing" after TABOR's chief advocate, tax activist Douglas Bruce. But the state itself is still required to refund tax surpluses.

TABOR also requires that any proposed tax increases and bond measures be submitted to voters.

Magellan surveyed 500 likely Colorado voters from Aug. 5 to 7. The margin of error is estimated at plus or minus 4.38%.

The pollsters noted that the reported results are based on the turnout they've projected for this November's off-year election, which will probably be older and more conservative than in elections held in even-numbered years.

Other survey findings as reported by Magellan:

  • "The primary reasons 46% of voters have a favorable opinion of the TABOR Amendment are: it is a check on government spending, holding elected officials accountable and requiring them to explain their spending decisions."
  • "The primary reasons 36% of respondents have an unfavorable opinion of TABOR is the belief that the amendment has had a negative impact on adequate funding for public education, roads, transportation and other government services. They also believe TABOR is unnecessary because elections provide an opportunity for voters to remove elected officials that are unhappy with their spending decisions."
  • "The component of TABOR that requires voter approval for tax increases and bond measures has strong support. Among all respondents, 62% support voter approval for tax increases, 26% oppose, and 12% were undecided."

The story draws on previous reporting by Marianne Goodland and Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics.

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