Can a politician really convince people to vote for a tax increase when those same people are facing 8.5 percent unemployment and a net loss in jobs since July?
That's the challenge that Sen. Rollie Heath has taken on with Proposition 103.
Heath, a Boulder Democrat, is hoping voters will opt to increase their state income tax rate from 4.63 to 5.0 and their state sales and use taxes rate from 2.9 to 3.0 percent for five years starting in 2012. It would raise an estimated $2.9 billion over the next five years, to be used solely for public education, from preschool to post-secondary. Only an act of the Legislature could redirect the funds.
According to the Legislative Council of the General Assembly, this will mean a $101 annual income tax increase for an earner making $35,000 a year, and a $315 bump for a married couple filing jointly with a $125,000 income. The .1 percent increase in sales tax would translate to an extra $5 for every $5,000 spent.
To Heath, that is a small investment to make relative to Prop 103's "huge potential to help schools." And he hopes to convey as much via the grassroots efforts of his supporters, including the Colorado AFL-CIO, the Colorado Council of Churches, and the Colorado Education Association. He projects that the campaign, in the end, will have spent roughly $300,000, not counting the costs for signature-collecting.
"We've raised enough money to do what we are going to do. This is not a television campaign. This is not a high-budget campaign," he says. "We're relying on grassroots support of people who care about education. ... This is not going to be a lot of glitz."
With two weeks left until ballots are mailed, opposition to Prop 103 has spent considerably less. One group, Save Colorado Jobs, headed by former state legislator Victor Mitchell, has only raised $10,000 — from Mitchell. And another, Too Taxing for Colorado, has raised $3,277.
Both could presumably raise and drop considerable cash in the short time left, and earlier this month the Colorado Statesman quoted Mitchell as stating that Save Colorado Jobs would spend "whatever it takes" to defeat the measure. (Mitchell could not be reached for comment.) But even in a year when 103 is the only statewide measure up for a vote, Americans for Prosperity Colorado state director Jeff Crank doesn't really see the need to lay out big money.
"Everybody knows what the political landscape is right now, and it's not a very good environment to try to have something on the ballot right now to try to raise taxes," Crank says. "My guess is that the people who support 103 are hoping that it's a very low-turnout election, so that they can exercise their grassroots, and get more of their people out than those who would oppose it."
Among those opposed, Crank says, there is a sense that 103 doesn't have much of a chance.
"I have publicly said that AFP Colorado is going to oppose it, but I haven't had anyone come to us and say, 'I hope that you spend a lot of money fighting this,' because there is a general sense that it's not going to win."
This has been the sentiment from the outset, Heath acknowledges, pointing out that "a lot of people were doubting our ability to even get it on the ballot."
"Nobody in the country has given this thing a chance," he says, "because the conventional wisdom is that people won't vote to raise their taxes, even in the most dire circumstances, which we are."
While he hasn't gotten overwhelming public support — Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has refused to weigh in — Heath says that once people are apprised of the arguments for, they tend to see the light. He points to the reversal of position by the editorial board of the Grand Junction Sentinel, which decided to endorse 103 after first editorializing against it.
"The 2012-2013 budget is going to be the toughest of them all," Heath says. "These are going to be hard cuts. This has huge implications, and I think that people recognize that. ... At least we can do something modest that stops the bleeding."