Who Is In Charge

Voters have a habit of rejecting state education taxes

If Colorado voters this November approve a $1 billion income tax increase to fund schools, they will break a string of defeats for similar measures stretching back decades.

Since the early 1990s, voters have approved only two ballot measures that affected education revenues – and neither of those included a general tax increase. Over the same period, voters defeated six K-12 or higher education funding measures.

And voters haven’t been kind to other kinds of tax increases, changes in debt limits or tweaks to existing financial provisions of the state constitution. Seven of those measures have been defeated, and only three have passed. (Article continues below timeline.)

Ballot measure timeline

See full history of ballot measures.

“It’s a challenging list,” said Wade Buchanan, president of the progressive-leaning Bell Policy Center and a long-time observer of state fiscal issues and battles.

To set some context for this fall’s expected campaign to pass a tax increase for K-12, Education News Colorado reviewed the history of ballot measures back to the early 1990s and interviewed a variety of political observers and operatives.

The tax increase is needed to pay for Senate Bill 13-213, the recent law that would create a new method for distributing school funding. No specific measure has yet been proposed for this November. The civic group Colorado Forum has filed proposals but has yet to decide which one it will attempt to get on the ballot through a petition campaign. Various business interests are still debating which of the 16 tax plans to support.

Most of those interviewed basically agreed with veteran campaign consultant Katy Atkinson, who said, “I think it’s going to be very difficult” to pass a measure. But communications consultant Eric Sondermann added, “You can pass these things. It’s not impossible.”

Patterns in the past

“We have kind of a tough record here when it comes to pitching tax measures statewide,” noted Charlie Brown, director of the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. “Nothing of a huge magnitude has passed.”

Wade Buchanan / File photo

Political observers cite a variety of reasons why some measures passed and others didn’t.

“Most of them didn’t attract the kind of money you need” for the campaign, said Buchanan.

Buchanan and others said that lack of campaign support may have doomed 2011’s Proposition 103, which would have added $536 million in temporary income and sales tax increase for education, and Amendment 59 in 2008, which would have diverted some tax refunds into education.

Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs, who has been advising Colorado Forum, agreed. The 103 campaign didn’t have enough funding “to the point that they saturated the market,” he said. (Melanson also ran one of the few successful tax-increase campaigns, Initiative 35 in 2004.)

Some measures that passed “flew under the radar” and were approved without much opposition because public attention was focused on higher-profile measures in those election years, Sondermann said. Amendment 50, which passed in 2008 and expanded limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges, is an example.

Statewide ballot proposals have a handicap that often doesn’t affect local tax proposals, such as school bond issues and tax overrides, which voters have a history of supporting.

“The more tangible the issue, the better chance you have of engaging voters,” Buchanan said. “When you go to the state level you get into abstractions. … It’s harder for people to know what you’re talking about.”

Charlie Brown and Sondermann agreed with that analysis. “Coloradans want to know what they’re buying,” said Sondermann.

Fred Brown, retired political columnist and reporter, cited metro-area voter support of stadium taxes, the cultural facilities levy and FasTracks as examples. “People knew exactly what they were getting for their money,” he said.

Is Ref C relevant?

When people talk about the proposed K-12 ballot measure, the conversation often turns to Referendum C.

Referendum C allowed the state to retain and spend for five years revenue that would have otherwise had to have been refunded to citizens under terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of tax increases and sets ceilings on revenue collections. Ref C, as it’s commonly called, didn’t raise tax rates. It passed with a 52 percent yes vote.

The measure, placed on the ballot by the legislature, was supported by Republican Gov. Bill Owens and was backed by a bipartisan coalition that included large segments of the business community. It was also promoted by a well-funded campaign. Backers of more education spending often say their plan needs the same “broad coalition” that supported Ref C.

Buchanan notes that Ref C provided about as much revenue as the education ballot measure proposes. But, he said, “There’s a big difference” between letting state government keep revenue and “telling people yes, this does raise your taxes.”

Katy Atkinson / File photo
Katy Atkinson / File photo

Atkinson agreed, noting the Ref C ballot language began with the words “Without raising taxes …”

She also said Owens’ support “gave Republicans permission to support” Ref C, and that there’s no high-profile GOP support this year for an education tax increase. Fred Brown noted that in 2005 many other Republicans opposed the measure.

Veteran political strategist Mike Dino said, “I do think Colorado voters have been accustomed to lower taxes for a long time” and that “we’re not in as good an economic time as with Ref C.”

Ref C passed with only about 52 percent of the vote, and a companion debt proposal failed.

Prospects for the campaign

“I’m sure they’re aware this is a tough uphill battle,” Charlie Brown said of the prospective campaign.

Many observers think campaign funding will be a key factor.

1992 a landmark?
The 1992 election saw the passage of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which in many ways has set the course for subsequent ballot measures. That year also saw the defeat of an education-funding-and-reform plan backed by then-Gov. Roy Romer.
Ross Perot
Ross Perot

Fred Brown, retired Denver Post political columnist and reporter, blames it all on maverick third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.“I think 1992 was a bizarre year because there was such a huge turnout, and it was driven by Ross Perot’s candidacy, ” Brown said. “Anti-government types were energized by the Perot candidacy.”

Brown says that aided the passage of TABOR and Amendment 2 (an anti-gay measure later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court) and the defeat the schools proposal. “Neither one of those measures would have passed, and maybe the school tax would have passed” without Perot voters, Brown speculated.

“It’s all about how much money you have,” said Buchanan.

Atkinson said the minimum for a campaign is probably $4 million. Sondermann cited $7 million as a reasonable amount, “but it’s probably closer to $10 million.”

Melanson wouldn’t venture a guess on an amount, but he did say, “You have to be funded to the degree that people understand what’s in the measure.”

Observers are of different minds about how voters will swing this year. Turnout usually is lower in off-year elections, and Sondermann noted that voters tend to skew older in those years. (The only measure currently set for the November ballot is a legislature proposal to set taxes on recreational marijuana.)

Others think that pro-education voters will turn out this year, motivated by past district budget cuts and the prospect of future K-12 revenue increases. Supporters are counting on that happening.

“The mood is certainly pro-education,” said Fred Brown.

“I think the political climate has changed,” he continued. “Colorado is more liberal now than it was 20 years ago, so that might make a difference. … But Colorado is more of an independent-minded state. It’s hard to predict what voters will do.”

Melanson sounded a similar note, saying, “The Colorado electorate is a younger electorate now, even in odd-year elections. … The conservative side of the scale was smaller in 2011 than it was in 2005.”

He said his firm started doing research shortly after Proposition 103 was defeated in 2011. “The outlook of Colorado was considerably more pessimistic at that time than it is now.”

But Atkinson noted that some segments of the Democratic Party base don’t necessarily support tax increases.

Gov. John Hickenlooper invariably comes up when people talk about the prospective ballot measure.

The governor’s involvement “will be important to the effort,” Dino said. “We do have a governor who, as mayor, had a lot of good results from putting things on the ballot that had failed in Denver before.” But, Dino added, “There hasn’t necessarily been a commitment by the governor as to the amount of time he’ll spend.”

Hickenlooper has said he’ll campaign for the eventual K-12 measure. But as recently as Wednesday he said he remains “ambivalent” about which variation of the proposed tax increase he prefers.

Atkinson said the governor won’t be the determining factor. “He’s not enough to push it over the top.”

Summing up, schools advocate Lisa Weil said, “I think there’s no question that this is a difficult task,” adding, “The wind is more at our back than it has been for a long time.” Weil is policy director for Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group that supports increased school funding.

Is there enough time?

Some education advocates have been nervous about the fact that a final version of the ballot measure hasn’t been selected.

But most observers feel the campaign will be able to gather the petition signatures needed by the Aug. 5 deadline – particularly if it uses paid petition circulators.

And there’s time to get the campaign message out – “with money,” Sondermann said.

“I think they have time with the message side of it,” Atkinson agreed.

Roll call of ballot measures

Key: Initiative refers to a measure placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A Referendum is a measure proposed by the legislature. Both types can change the constitution or state law.

Crucial measures

Six measures passed over the last three decades have shaped the landscape for government finance.

1982 – Referendum 1: The so-called Gallagher Amendment set new rules and ratios for assessment of property, has had the effect of reducing revenue from residential property taxes and, in combination with TABOR, shifted the bulk of school funding to the state.

1992 – Initiative 6: Known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), this constitutional amendment requires voter approval of tax increases, sets limits on annual government revenue increases and requires refunds of surplus revenues. At the local level, voters in many schools districts have opted out of some TABOR provisions, as the amendment allows, but voter approval of tax increases still is required.

Initiative 8: The Great Outdoors Colorado (GoCo) amendment reserves most state lottery revenues for wildlife conservation and open space, locking up revenues that are used for education or general purposes in many other states.

1994 – Referendum A: This constitutional amendment restricted future ballot measures to a “single subject.” Proposed partly in response to TABOR, the measure actually has made it harder for TABOR critics to change that amendment and also had spawned legal quibbling over many proposals.

2000 – Initiative 23: Universally known as Amendment 23, this requires base K-12 spending to increase by enrollment and inflation every year. (For the first 10 years it also required annual 1 percent increases on top of that.) A23 is as beloved by most education advocates as TABOR is by many conservatives.

2005 – Referendum C: This measure allowed the state to retain and spend TABOR surpluses for five years. It also changed some TABOR provisions that drove state revenue limits down in recessionary periods but didn’t allow them to recover when the economy improved.

Tax, revenue, spending and debt measures

This is a list of other revenue and spending-related measures on the ballot in recent decades, including both education-related and non-education proposals. Measures in green passed; measures in red were defeated. Vote percentages are rounded off.


Proposition 103 – $536 million temporary income and sales tax increase for education. Lost 36 percent to 63 percent


Amendment 50 – Expansion of limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges. Passed 58-41

Amendment 51 – $186 million sales tax increase to fund services for the developmentally disabled. Lost 37-62

Amendment 58 – $321 million increase in severance taxes, part of which would have been used for college scholarships. Lost 41-58

Amendment 59 – Would have diverted TABOR refunds to K-12 education. Lost 45-54


Referendum C –Passed 52-47

Referendum D – Would have allowed the state to issue debt for school, college and highway construction. Lost 49-50


Initiative 35 – A $175 million tobacco tax increase to fund children’s and other health programs. Passed 61-38


Initiative 32 – Proposed changes in the Gallagher Amendment. Lost 22-77


Initiative 26 – Would have allowed use of $50 million in excess state revenues for planning a monorail system along I-70. Lost 34-65


Amendment 23 – Passed 52-47

Referendum F – Would have allowed use of up to $50 million a year in excess revenues to fund school math and science grants. Lost 44-55


Referendum A – Allowed increase in debt limit (no tax increase) for transportation projects. Passed 61-38


Referendum B – Would have retained up to $200 million a year in excess revenues to fund school and college construction and transportation. Lost 38-61


Initiative 1 – A $178 million tax increase for transportation. Lost 15-84


Initiative 1 – A $132 million increase in tobacco taxes. Lost 38-61

Referendum A – The single-subject amendment passed 65-34


Referendum A – A proposed $13.1 million annual tax increase on “tourist-related” items. Lost 44-55


Initiative 1 – TABOR passed 53-46

Initiative 6 – Proposed a 1 percent increase in sales tax rate to fund schools and would have required setting standards and assessments for schools. Lost 45-54

Initiative 8 – Creation of Great Outdoors fund passed 58-41


Referendum 1 – Gallagher, passed 65-34

Full history of Colorado ballot measures

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.