Proposition 103’s last, best hope is low voter turn-out

The debate over Proposition 103, the $2.9 billion sales and income tax increase described in that ballot sitting on your coffee table, has been decidedly low key.

To the best of my knowledge, there have been no TV or radio ads aired by either side. No rallies, no marches, no occupations. No big-dollar paid advertising wars, no made-for-TV moments.

With the exception of that embarrassing moment when the proposition’s supporters lured some Douglas County high school students on a Capitol tour to become unwitting campaign props at a press conference announcing the tax-increase plan, there have been almost no fireworks in the several months since Proposition 103 was first birthed.

Statewide tax-increase campaigns in Colorado during the age of TABOR are normally high-stakes, high-drama and high-profile. But not Proposition 103. As far as the general populace goes, this campaign has been conducted with the all the sound and fury of a cell phone with a ringer on vibrate.

A major reason for all this “low-key” is the reluctance of many of the Democrats’ top brass to embrace this tax increase. After the age of Ritter, Democrats appear to be slightly less bullish about lending their names or elected biceps to unpopular tax increases.

In a move that is deft only because the press has, for the most part, let him get away with it, Gov. John Hickenlooper has dodged the debate, refusing to say whether he supports the tax increase.

Last week, all of the Republicans in the Legislature sent a letter to Hickenlooper, expressing their opposition to 103, while urging the governor to take a side, any side — you know, since he’s the CEO of the state.

If you didn’t hear about the Republican gambit, it’s because it received little attention.

If I didn’t know what his answer would be before I asked, I’d pick up the phone and ask former Gov. Bill Owens whether he thinks he would have ever been allowed to totally duck the debate on the most important issue going on in the state during his eight years as governor.

But fret not, all ye who are heavy-laden and longing to have state government take more out of your paycheck. The supporters of Proposition 103 are not without a plan.

The “Yes on 103” campaign has spent gobs of money using inexpensive automated dialing technologies to identify Republicans and independent voters who are sympathetic to more spending on education. The calls are not traditional polls, or even push-polls. The goal is to identify sympathizers in unusual places, who can subsequently be targeted with door knocks or more phone calls to get out their “Yes” vote.

The broader strategy looks something like this: Identify and turn-out as many pro-103 Republicans and independents as can be cobbled together, rely on the heavy machinery of the unions to turn out hundreds of thousands of reliably leftist votes in Denver, Boulder and other pro-tax communities, and hope against hope that limited-government conservatives and economically frustrated independents in places like Mesa County don’t turn out in mass.

In that very real sense, the exceedingly low-key campaign actually suits the “Yes on 103” effort. If Team Tax Hike can identify and activate the vote in a one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat kind of way, the lack of a high-profile fight actually aids their cause, as many “No” votes may not be alerted about or engaged to the fight in the first place.

This is where voters in places like Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties may prove pivotal. A few years back, a crushing turn-out and a heavy “No” vote from these West Slope counties was widely recognized as the reason that a borrowing plan (called Referendum D) lost statewide. You’ll recall that Refernedum D was indebtedness twin to Referendum C.

If the Western Slope hadn’t spoken with thunderous force against Referendum D, the state’s budget situation would be dramatically worse today.

And the same, of course, is true of Proposition 103. If all of the voters who think that throwing more money at the public education system without real and substantial reform fill out their ballot with a check mark next to “No,” then Proposition 103 will go down to defeat.

But in an off election year, without much else on the ballot, conservatives cannot take such an outcome for granted. A low-key campaign aids the cause of low turn-out, and low-turn out in communities like Mesa Countyt could well mean that 103’s higher taxes to prop up the educational status quo become law in this state.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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