Colorado voters have agreed to suspend the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the nation's strictest government spending limit, and give up more than $3 billion in taxpayer refunds to help the state bounce back from a recession.
The vote essentially suspends a key part of TABOR, a model conservatives hold up for other states to emulate.
"It certainly makes our hill harder to climb," said Cameron Sholty, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, which campaigned against loosening TABOR's fiscal reins.
Californians are scheduled to vote on state spending limits Nov. 8, and Kansas, Ohio, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and Arizona are considering spending caps.
Douglas Bruce, the anti-tax crusader who wrote TABOR more than a decade ago, said Colorado voters have make it harder for other states to approve similar measures.
"The establishment is going to say we had 13 years of experience with spending limits and we changed our minds," he said. "I'm sorry for their sake and I'm sorry for our sake."
Added Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman, who lobbied heavily against the budget fix: "It sends a terrible message to the rest of the nation."
A record turnout for a hot-button issue
Referendum C will let the state keep an estimated $3.7 billion that would otherwise be refunded under TABOR. With 99 percent of the expected vote counted statewide, 578,408 voters, or 52 percent, had approved the plan, compared with 533,105, or 48 percent, who voted against it.
A second ballot measure that would have allowed the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, school maintenance, pensions and other projects was rejected: 560,897 people, or 51 percent, voted no on Referendum D compared with 547,490, or 49 percent, who backed it.
Unofficial, preliminary figures indicated statewide turnout may have hit 47.7 percent. The record for an odd-year election was 47.2 percent in 2003, when voters overwhelmingly defeated a $2 billion proposal for water projects.
"We might have lost but we lost in a split decision. I'll take that half-loaf than no loaf at all," said Jon Caldara, leader of the opposition group "Vote No; It's Your Dough."
Caldara said he will consider a court challenge to Referendum C, arguing that one of its provisions illegally changes the constitution with a law instead of a constitutional amendment.
That provision overrides TABOR by allowing lawmakers a one-time chance to use the best of the next five years to calculate future budget increases. TABOR normally requires each year's budget to be based only on the one before.
Bruce said it was too soon to consider legal action.
Majority of voters see high cost in tax refunds
Supporters said Colorado simply could not afford to vote no, not with higher education, health care and transportation already suffering from millions of dollars in budget cuts.
The vote was a sweet victory for lame duck Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who stunned his own party by crafting the ballot measures with Democrats.
"It tells other states if you do it the right way, it works," Owens said. "It means we can join 49 other states recovering from the recession, we can make up some of the cuts in education, roads and health care."
House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said lawmakers now have the task of deciding how to spend the money.
"I think the opposition said if C and D passes, then there will be wild-eyed spending. That's wrong. We're still going to have one of the strongest tax limits in the nation," he said.
House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, said he and others who opposed the ballot measures will make sure lawmakers keep their promises.
"My side of the aisle will be bulldogs to make sure this money is not diverted. This doesn't mean the creation of new programs," Stengel said.
Supporters had warned Colorado will be forced to lay off hundreds of government employees, cut health care funding, and slash state money for universities and community colleges should the measures fail.
Anti-tax activists see other motives
Opponents labeled the plan a tax grab by politicians too gutless to make tough decisions, with many singling out Owens as a traitor to his party.
"For years, Owens has gone around the country saying what a great thing TABOR is, and now he has flip-flopped. Somebody got to him," said Mike Dorsey, a 51-year-old real estate broker from El Paso County who voted no.
But in college towns from Boulder to Fort Collins and Grand Junction and Durango, students and others said they feared higher education would face crippling cuts and higher tuition rates.
"It's not a Republican or Democrat issue," said James Palmer, a 65-year-old professor of film studies and director of the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder who voted yes. "If you look at where Colorado is rated among the 50 states in terms of taxes and support for higher education, it's shocking to see how far down (the list) this state is. If it doesn't pass, there are going to be more cuts across the board."
Dena Hauser, a 75-year-old retired day care worker in Boulder, said she voted yes because she believes C and D will help people who live on a fixed income get the prescription drugs and medical care they need.
"Too often, it's having enough money for prescriptions or food, it shouldn't be that way," she said. Should the measures fail, she added: "It will mean more people on welfare, more people in homeless shelters and more people in the poor house."
In Denver, voters on Tuesday also approved:
- An annual $25 million property tax increase to fund a program that will link raises and incentives for Denver public school teachers to student achievement. Experts said no other large district in the nation has tried such a dramatic overhaul.
- A measure to make it legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, though the city attorney’s office said police would simply file marijuana possession charges under state law.