The nation's only statewide tax vote on the November ballot asks Colorado voters whether they want to temporarily raise taxes to generate $3 billion for classrooms and colleges — a proposal that has stirred fierce opposition because of the stagnant economy.
The vote could serve as a test of voters' mood on tax increases and their frustration after endless rounds of education cuts in Colorado.
"If it should pass, it think it will get a fair amount of attention because no one is expecting anything with the words 'tax increase' to pass," said Norman Provizer, a political science professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
Opponents, including the entire Republican delegation in Colorado's Legislature, insist tax hikes will cost jobs and won't by themselves help schools. Some Democratic leaders, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, have declined to publicly endorse the proposal, saying they see little appetite for a tax hike.
Even some supporters are skeptical.
"I doubt it will pass," Valerie Walker said after dropping off her ballot in downtown Denver. While she voted for the initiative, she said, "I just think people can't afford having additional money coming out of their pockets right now."
The money raised by Proposition 103 would help fill the void from education cuts that were induced by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a voter-approved initiative that strictly limits taxes and spending.
The measure would raise individual and corporate tax rates from 4.63 percent to 5 percent and Colorado's sales and use tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3 percent. The rates would be in effect from 2012 through 2016, with an estimated $2.9 billion in new revenue during that time going to K-12 schools and public colleges.
A married couple with a combined household income of $125,000 would pay about $315 more annually in income taxes, nonpartisan legislative economists estimate. Sales taxes on a $5,000 purchase would increase from $145 to $150.
While nearly 619,000 of Colorado's 3.2 million registered voters have cast ballots in the mostly mail-in election, Provizer cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from what has been a relatively low-profile campaign.
Proposition 103's supporters have raised $420,000, its opponents roughly $22,000 — figures that pale in comparison to the millions generated by past attempts to generate or keep more state revenue under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, often referred to as TABOR.
Funding for K-12 education in Colorado totals $2.8 billion, or nearly 40 percent of the budget. As in other states, though, Colorado schools have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts. This year, lawmakers slashed more than $200 million from K-12 funding. More cuts are expected in 2012. The higher education budget was reduced this year by $125 million and stands at about $624 million.
Denver parent Phillip Garcia says Proposition 103 is worth it.
The 29-year-old nightclub promoter says his fourth-grade daughter's school has overcrowded classrooms, its teachers frazzled by the increased workload.
"I know the economy's bad, but if there's one thing worth spending money on, it's education," Garcia said.
The state Democratic Party's lukewarm support for the tax hike — petitioned onto the ballot by a Democratic lawmaker — has exasperated supporters. Hickenlooper, who took office in January, said he promised voters he would not back any initiative to raise taxes during his first year.
"It does frustrate me that people in leadership positions are sitting silent," said John Creighton, father of three public school students and president of the St. Vrain Valley School Board in Longmont.
He said his district already asks parents to help pay for advanced classes and extracurricular activities and that further cuts would harm basic classroom teaching.
"Everyone's looking for that perfect moment to do things, and the truth is there is no perfect moment," Creighton said.
Still other supporters argue the bad economy is a reason to vote for the tax hike.
"Who knows, this (economy) can be going on for five, 10, 15 years," said Don Schumacher, a physical therapist in Denver who voted for Proposition 103. "I think we owe it to the citizens to provide what we can as taxpayers."
Tony Gagliardi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small business owners, said a tax increase now will force employers to hire fewer people at a time when state unemployment is 8.3 percent.
"When the costs go up, the way (businesses) control those costs is they either don't hire or they reduce their workforce," he said.
One of them is Roger Newell, general manager and operator of A Roadrunner Appliance Service in the Denver suburb of Castle Rock.
"I have a problem with government saying we need more money and we'll raise taxes, but everyone in the private sector is having to cut back to survive," Newell said.
Other states that have recently asked voters for tax raises for education have had mixed results.
Last year, Oregon passed two measures — one that raised certain income taxes and another that raised corporate and business taxes — to funnel money to education, health and public safety. In Washington, voters rejected a new income tax on high-wage earners for health and education funding.
Ivan Moreno can be reached on Twitter: http://twitter.com/IvanJournalist
Kristen Wyatt can be reached on Twitter: http://twiter.com/APkristenwyatt