Dan Ritchie made a prophetic declaration four and a half years ago.
In a conference room filled with Colorado policy leaders, the former University of Denver chancellor moderated a discussion with experts who lamented the state’s dismal rankings for spending on education, colleges and transportation. But no one had an easy solution.
Out of nowhere, Ritchie declared: “I’m going to do something about this.”
The audience applauded. And no one doubted the wealthy civic leader’s level of commitment.
Later that year in 2015, Ritchie created an organization that laid the groundwork for Proposition CC — the 2019 ballot measure to end the state’s constitutional caps on tax revenue. Then he donated $1 million to help it win approval in Tuesday’s election.
His contributions to Coloradans for Prosperity, the leading pro-CC group, surpass all public individual donors this election year, according to campaign finance records. The total is twice the amount he has spent on state-level political donations in the past 25 years combined.
“He’s really been the energy behind it the chief cheerleader in charge,” said Reeves Brown, who recalled Ritchie’s pledge at the conference and helped guide the organization created to look at the state’s fiscal issues.
The 88-year-old Ritchie has emerged as Colorado’s leading crusader to overhaul the much-debated fiscal knot embodied by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. His motivation is what he sees as a chronic underfunding of the state’s schools, where 111 of 178 districts only teach four days a week.
“It’s not my thing with TABOR, it’s the kids,” Ritchie said in a recent interview in his office on the DU campus, where he still comes to work most days.
“The state is really starving our schools and our colleges and not spending the money we should be spending on roads,” he added.
In his mind, Prop. CC should be a bipartisan issue. But it didn’t materialize and the controversial nature of the measure kept key allies — in particular Republicans — from lending their support. So he felt the need to take the lead.
“He said, ‘I’m staying up at night. I can’t get this out of my head.’ Literally, he was so upset about the fact that nobody was actually coming forward to run this thing,” said Gail Klapper, who worked alongside Ritchie as part of the Building a Better Colorado, the initiative created after the conference in May 2015.
And, as he told friends, the outcome of Prop. CC is too important to see the chance wasted.
“He says to us, ‘Look, if we lose on this first step, we will never see … a more robust effort to fund anything,” Klapper recalled. “If we can’t pass this, it’s the end of the game. He believes this, and I think he’s right about it.”
The road from no to maybe on TABOR started with Ritchie’s help
TABOR plays an outsized role in Colorado politics, a controversial governor on state spending that is beloved by fiscal conservatives but bemoaned by others who want to invest in more services.
Approved by voters in 1992, it limits annual tax revenue in Colorado to the growth of the consumer price index and population, a formula that doesn’t account for the true cost of inflation. It also requires a vote on all tax increases.
This is where Ritchie stepped to the plate in 2015 with the launch of Building a Better Colorado with Brown and Klapper. The new organization traveled the state hosting meetings with select community leaders to educate them about electoral and fiscal challenges.
“It was heartening to realize that there was a middle ground,” said Lee White, a board member at Building a Better Colorado and a managing director at Stifel Public Finance, an investment firm in Denver. “Dan was very inspired by that and very motivated.”
Four of the five ideas that came from the 2015 effort were adopted by the legislature or voters at the ballot. The one idea from the initiative that didn’t advance was an overhaul of TABOR.
The anecdotal responses from the months-long listening tour initially indicated support for removing the revenue caps that limit the state budget. So Ritchie and his allies decided to take the issue to voters in the 2016 election and formed a political committee called Colorado Priorities.
The draft ballot initiative put a timeout on the TABOR caps for 10 years and would have spent any excess money on education and transportation, as well as other priorities areas. But given the uncertain presidential election and a ballot crowded with other major issues, his group pulled the question.
It left Ritchie frustrated but undeterred. “He’s a pretty soft-spoken person in terms of style, but he’s tenacious and he’s inclined toward action. He doesn’t just lament stuff,” said Tom Gougeon, a Building a Better Colorado board member and the president of the Gates Family Foundation. (The foundation is a major supporter of the Colorado Media Project and provided a match to The Sun during a member drive in 2018.)
Earlier this year, Building a Better Colorado revived the discussion and convened another three dozen statewide meetings to look at the three provisions that tie state spending in knots — TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment that guides property tax rates, and Amendment 23, which mandates more education spending.
Once again the feedback from those invited to participate, regardless of party, was positive and pointed toward potential support for lifting the TABOR revenue cap. It helped provide cover for the Democratic-led General Assembly to put Prop. CC on the 2019 ballot, despite support from only one Republican lawmaker.
Now Ritchie and his allies feel confident this is the right moment. “In many ways, it is coming to a boil — as in how many chances do we have to protect and save all it is that we hold dear?” said Al Yates, the former president of Colorado State University who led the scrapped 2016 ballot drive with Ritchie.
For critics, Prop. CC is a retread of familiar ground
For TABOR’s defenders, Prop. CC only confirmed the suspicions about the motivations of the Building a Better Colorado initiative — that it was merely a front to weaken the spending limits.
Ritchie “is well-known for not liking TABOR,” said Michael Fields, the director at Colorado Rising Action, a conservative group opposed to Prop. CC.
Fields also dismissed the notion that Building a Better Colorado found such broad consensus to push such initiatives. He pointed to poll numbers that show a significant portion of the electorate wants to keep TABOR in place without changes. “The people who participated (in the listening tour) have a view and it’s reinforced by going to these things,” he said.
One place where the proponents and critics agree is the importance of the ballot campaign. Both see Prop. CC as a proxy vote on Colorado’s appetite for even greater changes to its tax structure.
For proof, the critics point to Ritchie’s huge spending on the measure. “You don’t give a million dollars to this effort if there’s not an Act 2,” Fields said.
Ritchie considers himself a fiscal conservative — he was a registered Republican until 2018 when he became unaffiliated — but he acknowledged in an interview that he didn’t support TABOR when it came for a vote during his 16-year term as DU chancellor.
And he never imagined TABOR would contribute to the current political stalemate in Colorado when it comes to spending, with voters rejecting ballot questions seeking tax hikes year after year. “I didn’t know it would get to where it is because I thought people would be more rationale, and then when necessary, make changes as needed,” he said. “That’s been tried now a few times and without success, so we’ve got to solve our problem.”
Ritchie is quick to add a caveat: He doesn’t want to repeal TABOR in its entirety, unlike some liberal advocates in Colorado. It’s a topic the Building a Better Colorado initiative purposely avoided.
So he sees Prop. CC as a middle-of-the-road compromise that would allow the state to retain as much as $1.7 billion in excess revenue to boost education and transportation, rather than returning it to taxpayers.
The Harvard-educated Ritchie learned the value of education at an early age through his father, who convinced him not to drop out of school at age 15.
Later in life, after decades of executive positions at Westinghouse Broadcast and MCA Inc., he focused on improving early childhood education through his involvement with various foundations and civic organizations. He never married and doesn’t have kids, but feels like he’s had plenty in his life. “You see these kids, and you know, you kind of melt,” he said.
The state’s uneven funding formula for education is well recognized, and a constitutional requirement for annual increases in classroom spending remains unfulfilled. If Prop. CC passes, the governor’s office estimates it would send $116 million toward K-12 education in the next fiscal year and equivalent amounts each to higher education and transportation.
It won’t fix the problems Ritchie sees in Colorado, but it’s a start. That’s why he’s all-in.
His donations account for a quarter of the $4.2 million the pro-CC campaign has reported raising so far this election cycle. On the other side, Americans for Prosperity, a national group backed by billionaire Charles Koch that supports conservative causes, has donated $1.6 million toward an issue committee against the measure.
To find the money, Ritchie said he had to pull from his retirement living expenses. But it is “what it took to give people the belief that, ‘Gee, this thing has a chance,’” he said.
“We can still lose it,” he cautioned, “but I at least want to feel that I’ve done the very best I can at whatever sacrifice. I know you think I’m crazy, and I’m not sure you would be wrong, but at this age: What is important to you?”