The Colorado Constitution contains a provision called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or “TABOR”, which requires state, local and county governments to obtain voter approval to issue bonds (increase debt), increase a mill levy, or a sales tax. Basically, any time a government wishes to raise revenue for any purpose, they are required to ask for voter approval through a ballot initiative. For the past 10 years, our Colorado voter opinion surveys have found a majority support for TABOR, primarily because people appreciate TABOR’s ability to keep government spending in check and under control. Over the years, we have also learned from our Colorado ballot initiative survey research that successful ballot initiatives usually include at least one of the following four characteristics.
1. Be Very, Very Specific About How the Funds Will Be Spent
Colorado voters, regardless of party affiliation, are naturally skeptical about how state, local or county governments spend taxpayer money. They are generally reluctant and uncomfortable approving sales tax and mill levy rates increases. They cringe at approving new government debt through bonding, regardless of the purpose, when a ballot initiative language is vague or too broad about how the funding would be spent. We believe that the lack of detail regarding how the education funds would have been spent under Proposition 103 contributed to its defeat back in 2011. Proposition 103’s language (paraphrased) is below.
“State taxes shall be increased $536.1 million annually in the first full fiscal year and by such amounts as are raised annually thereafter by amendments to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning a temporary increase in certain state taxes for additional public education funding,…….requiring that the additional revenues resulting from these increased tax rates be spent only to fund public education from preschool through twelfth grade and public postsecondary education…”
Now you would think that the language was specific enough for the taxpayers, right? However, you would be surprised by our focus groups at the lack of trust voters have for school board decisions on how public education dollars are spent. In fact, our past statewide Colorado surveys have found that 75% of voters think too much spending goes toward school administration and overhead costs, and not enough funding makes it into the classroom. So if you want your ballot initiative to pass, be really specific about how funds would be spent.
2. Make Sure There is Zero Chance the Funds Could be Spent on Something Else
Colorado voters absolutely loathe approving new revenue that was intended for a specific purpose only to see the funds go into a government “general fund”. Making it crystal clear to voters that the funding can only be spent on its intended purposes, such as teachers’ salaries, new construction, or roads, is really important. We believe this component was critical in passing Ballot Issue 2C in Colorado Springs, which is one of the most anti-sales tax regions in Colorado. This ballot measure asked the voters of Colorado Springs to approve a .62% sales tax increase to fund road repairs and improvements. Mayor John Suthers made it very clear that road repairs and improvements were the only things that the money could go toward.
3. Sunset the Tax Automatically or Give Voters the Opportunity to Kill the Tax
Without question, Colorado voters are more likely to support ballot initiatives that include a “sunset” provision that automatically ends a tax after a certain number of years. Voters also prefer ballot initiatives that allow them the opportunity to re-approve or reject the tax/mill levy increase after a certain period of time. Like the state’s TABOR law, it empowers taxpayers to hold government spending in check. Below is the Colorado Springs 2C ballot initiative language spelling out when the sales tax will sunset:
“SHALL CITY TAXES BE INCREASED $50,000,000 ANNUALLY BY LEVYING A TEMPORARY 0.62% SALES/USE TAX FOR ROAD REPAIRS/IMPROVEMENTS TO TERMINATE 12/31/2020, CONSTITUTING A VOTER-APPROVED REVENUE CHANGE EXEMPT FROM SPENDING/REVENUE LIMITATIONS?”
4. Include Ballot Language That States the Tax Cost Per Household or for a Typical Purchase
We guarantee you that Colorado voters will not know what a $30 million, $50 million or $140 million dollar bond issue will cost them over 10, 20 or 30 years. So don’t let them guess, spell it out! If you don’t, voters are much less likely to even consider approving the ballot initiative unless it is for something they really want like new roads, housing or schools. A good example of this recommendation is in the language of the following ballot initiative that passed this past May in the Edwards Metropolitan District, seeking funding for road and transportation needs.
“SHALL EDWARDS METROPOLITAN DISTRICT SALES TAX BE INCREASED $950,000 IN THE FIRST FULL FISCAL YEAR AND BY WHATEVER ADDITIONAL AMOUNTS ARE RAISED ANNUALLY THEREAFTER BY THE IMPOSITION OF A SALES TAX BEGINNING AS SOON AS JULY 1, 2016 AT A RATE NOT TO EXCEED 1% (10 CENTS ON EACH $10 TAXABLE PURCHASE) UNTIL DECEMBER 31, 2040 AND CONTINUING AT A RATE NOT TO EXCEED 0.5% (5 CENTS ON EACH $10 TAXABLE PURCHASE) THEREAFTER, UPON EVERY TRANSACTION IN THE DISTRICT UPON WHICH THE STATE IMPOSES A SALES TAX, FOR THE PURPOSES OF FINANCING, CONSTRUCTING, OPERATING AND MAINTAINING STREETS, TRANSPORTATION, LANDSCAPING AND SAFETY PROTECTION IMPROVEMENTS, INCLUDING VEHICULAR, BICYCLE AND PEDESTRIAN IMPROVEMENTS TO EDWARDS ACCESS ROAD AND HIGHWAY 6 WITHIN EDWARDS?”
This summarizes the components that we believe make a successful ballot initiative. However, we have also conducted many ballot initiative surveys in Colorado that found voter support coming up short. In most cases, the reason why is because voters think the intended purpose of the new revenue does not touch them personally or they don’t care. There are also many voters who oppose new taxes because they are on a fixed income or their personal economic situation is not very good. Still, including the above components as part of your ballot language will, without a doubt, improve the chances of your initiative passing.