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Jesse Mallory, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, types information into a tablet after leaving a flier against Proposition CC at the door of a Westminster home Oct. 21, 2019. Americans for Prosperity is a key funder of an issue committee opposed to the 2019 ballot question. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Kane Randolph presses the doorbell at the home of a voter in Denver and readies his pitch.

In the next few seconds — which is all the time he expects to get — he needs to explain Proposition CC, a 60-word question on the 2019 statewide ballot that is mired in baggage.

When the door opens, Randolph, a paid canvasser for the pro-CC campaign, introduces himself and makes his case. “So pretty much what it is is taxes that you’ve already paid — that instead of coming back to you in 2021 as a $20 refund, it will go back into an allocated fund for fixing the roads and our education system,” he says.

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Hours later, Jesse Mallory, the state director for Americans for Prosperity’s issue committee, which opposes Prop. CC, faces the same challenge when he knocks on a door in Westminster.

“It was put on the ballot this year by the legislature. It seeks to keep the refunds due back to taxpayers in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights permanently — with no guarantee on where the money is going to go,” Mallory tells a voter.

The diametric arguments — made in less than 20 seconds — are effective. Each secured their respective vote. But the public conversation about Prop. CC masks the complicated and consequential question voters face in the Nov. 5 election.

Prop. CC carries huge political ramifications — for Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic leaders, for a Republican Party looking to rebound, for limited-government advocates nationwide and for the education and transportation sectors that together stand to get as much as $1.7 billion in the next three years. And the question is burdened with three decades of controversy surrounding the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, Colorado’s unique limits on government spending.

All this is too complicated to explain at the door. And there’s little else on the ballot to drive voters to the polls. So both campaigns are honing selective messages to target their true believers. In a campaign with scant polling data, both sides believe it’s a narrow race in which the winner will be determined by the campaign that turns out more of their supporters.

“These elections are different from a typical one,” said Mallory, an experienced campaign strategist. “You need that one-on-one voter conversation.”

Voters cast ballots at Denver’s 14th Avenue and Bannock Street polling station on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It’s hard to understate the stakes in Prop. CC 

Prop. CC represents the first major fiscal policy decision in Colorado in decades and comes more than 25 years after the state voted in 1992 to put the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the constitution. 

TABOR, as it’s more commonly known, limits the growth of annual state tax collections to the increase in population plus inflation. Any excess money is to be rebated to taxpayers. The Democratic-led legislature — with support from Polis — wrote Prop. CC to permanently remove the limit and won support from just one Republican, Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson. The only other time Colorado voted to lift the cap came in 2005 under Referendum C, but it restricted the timeout to five years.

MORE: Proposition CC explained: What it means to end the spending caps in TABOR and the money at stake

If Prop. CC passes, the state would keep an estimated $542 million to $1.7 billion in tax revenues in the next three years, according to two economic forecasts from September. A companion law approved by lawmakers splits the revenue in thirds between K-12 education, higher education and transportation.

It remains unclear exactly how that money would be split, but the proponents are promising it would go toward any number of priorities, including teacher compensation and bonuses; textbooks and technology; a reduction in classroom sizes; the elimination of four-day school weeks; more college scholarships and financial aid; and repairing dilapidated roads and bridges. The collective cost of the promises made in Prop. CC far exceeds the potential additional revenue, which is dependent on economic growth. The state would require an audit to track the spending.

If the ballot question fails, the money would be returned to taxpayers over three years. The low-end estimates suggest it would amount to rebates worth anywhere from $60 to $186. The high-end forecast projects the average refunds would fall between $248 for single filers and $638 for joint filers.

It’s too much to explain at the door. And campaigns for and against the measure — as evidenced by their pitches to voters — skew the numbers and impact to their benefit. But the political implications are even more significant.

For many Democrats and liberal advocacy organizations, the passage of Prop. CC is a key part of their agenda to find money for priority areas without asking voters for a tax-rate hike. 

“This is a turning point, I believe, in Colorado history,” said Janine Davidson, the president of Metropolitan State University in Denver and a leading supporter.

For many Republicans and conservatives, the measure represents an opportunity to regroup after a bruising 2018 election in which Democrats won control of all statewide offices and the General Assembly. The state Republican Party is spending money to campaign against it. 

Kelly Maher, a Republican strategist, called Prop. CC “a gift” from Democrats, because it allows conservatives to unite behind a fiscal issue, rather than a social one that divides the GOP.

The race is a national test, too. Big money from major Democratic donors and the conservative Koch network is flooding the race. The political left views a victory as a first step toward much broader overhaul of the state’s tax system. The political right wants to preserve TABOR, which is touted as a nationwide model for limited government.

And more directly, the ballot question is a major test for Polis, the first-year governor. He promised in the 2018 campaign that he would build a coalition to overhaul TABOR and “win at the ballot box.”

MORE: Jared Polis Promise Tracker: A look at the progress on his 2018 campaign pledges

The outcome of Prop. CC also affects two additional promises Polis made: to pass a measure to find more money for schools and find new revenue for transportation.

Polis declined to directly answer a question from The Sun about Prop. CC and his campaign promises, but he sent an email to supporters last week calling it “an extremely important election for all of us.”

The ballot measure means voters have “the power to change an outdated budget formula in our tax law that prevents investment in our roads and our schools,” he wrote.

The Prop. CC ballot battle is different from other major campaigns

Even with such high stakes, the campaign to support Prop. CC began late and with little urgency. The “kickoff” came in October, days before ballots were mailed to voters. Steve Welchert, a Democratic strategist, called the campaign “a little bit of political malpractice.” 

Welchert suggested the supporters didn’t do the work needed in the summer months to build a strong campaign — a point echoed by Sheila MacDonald, a consultant with experience on ballot measures. Both spoke at a political forum at the University of Denver.

“It does matter to the Democrats in both chambers and the governor’s office,” MacDonald said. “And they need a win. They put this on the ballot, and they put their reputations on the line.”

House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat and leading champion for the measure, is not concerned. But she acknowledged that proponents were sidetracked by conversations over the summer to adjust the ballot language in order to draw more Republican support. “We are doing all that we can,” she said.

The other side began months earlier, in June. That’s when the “No on CC” campaign announced from key Republican leaders, including former Gov. Bill Owens, stood firmly against the measure.

His voice is significant because he helped lead the campaign for the temporary TABOR timeout in 2005, which came after two years of declining revenue forced budget cuts. Democratic leaders approached him about supporting Prop. CC, but Owens said he couldn’t do it.

“Had the state been short of revenue for some definitive reason, and had there been a tight enough time limit, it certainly would have been something you make an argument for,” Owens said, referring to Prop. CC. “But the state is not short of revenue. It’s awash in revenue. It’s just the state has chosen to spend it on Medicaid and other purposes rather than transportation.”

The issue committee affiliated with the Americans for Prosperity’s Colorado chapter launched its efforts against the measure the same month. Since then, the organization has made more than 1 million calls to voters, knocked on 100,000 doors and sent 430,000 text messages, Mallory said.

The organization — backed by billionaire Charles Koch — has spent $1.5 million on its efforts, which also includes mailers and other advertising. The organization doesn’t disclose its donors. Another dark-money organization, Defend Colorado, is airing TV and radio ads against the ballot measure.

MORE: Colorado Voter Guide 2019: What you need to know about propositions CC and DD before you vote

But so far the supporters are outspending the critics. Coloradans for Prosperity, the lead organization behind Prop. CC, has raised more than $4 million, including $1 million from former University of Denver Chancellor Dan Ritchie. The money is going toward TV ads and mailers that promote the beneficiaries of the money. Great Education Colorado, an education advocacy group, also is running campaigns to drive voters to the polls.

The campaigns on both sides are sophisticated with voter targeting and canvassing operations. But it’s less robust than an even-year election with little public polling and limited energy spent chasing voters to submit their ballots.

The early vote returns through Tuesday show that Republicans are a plurality of the 525,000 ballots cast, which is a typical trend a week ahead of the election. The total is less than half of the expected turnout. Among active voters who have submitted ballots, only 15% are registered Democrats and 12% are unaffiliated, according to Magellan Strategies, a Republican consulting firm.

“We have a good chance of passing it, but there’s always more work to do,” said Becker, the House speaker. “I think the nature of these measures … is always a challenge to explain to people.” 

Kane Randolph, a paid canvasser for the campaign in favor of Proposition CC, waits at a door in Denver on Oct. 21, 2019. Randolph, 37, is trying to get voters to cast ballots for the 2019 ballot measures. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

On the ground, it’s about educating voters

The challenge is one Randolph, the canvasser, accepts. He has worked for Democratic-backed campaigns for a decade, walking door-to-door and talking to voters. 

On a recent weekday, he expected to visit 100 houses in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood, where he targeted mostly like-minded voters encouraging them to turn in ballots.

Unlike working for candidates, the 37-year-old landscaper from Colorado Springs finds ballot measures an easier pitch. “It isn’t a person, and it isn’t a party. Therefore, I don’t even call it a sell,” he said as he hiked the stairs on another front porch. “It’s just informative. Like why would you want a refund (so small that) if you have kids you can’t take them all out for dinner? But letting them keep it, you can have better teachers and more school books.”

Just weeks earlier, he worked to help thwart a recall attempt against Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo. He said that’s one reason the Prop. CC canvassing effort started so late.

The conversations on this afternoon were easy. He found a lot of support for the ballot question and plenty of TABOR critics. One time he made his pitch, a voter asked him: “Is this getting-around-TABOR stuff?” 

“Yeah,” Randolph replied. “OK, you have my vote,” the voter said.

A handful more “yes” votes followed from voters who opened doors decorated for Halloween. “It’s not even taking candy from a baby, it’s giving candy to a baby and having them give you better candy back,” he said.

The same day in Westminster, a blustery wind tried to blow away the door hangers against Prop. CC that Mallory left behind when no one answered. 

“I approach every election like it’s going to be close,” AFP’s Mallory said. And he’s optimistic. The early ballot returns show “a lot of the areas we are working are turning out. That’s what we want.”

He stopped at a handful of doors on each street, trying to reach people the organization believes are supporters of limited government spending. John Carmicheal, a 72-year-old handyman was an easy match.

Mallory asked him if he knew about TABOR and whether he supported it. 

“Any time they raise taxes, I’m against,” Carmicheal told him. “Any time they want to spend money, I’m against it. They have too much of that stuff.”

Do you plan to vote?” Mallory asked. 

“Yeah, I’ll vote.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.