Voters cast their ballots at downtown Denver's Bannock Street polling location on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The only-in-the-nation fiscal handcuffs on Colorado’s budget will remain in place after voters Tuesday rejected a move by Democrats to repeal the spending limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Preliminary election returns showed Proposition CC losing by a solid margin, trailing 56% to 44% with an estimated three-quarters of the vote counted.

If the numbers hold, it would amount to a resounding victory for fiscal conservatives and national organizations that spent big money to keep TABOR intact and push back against Gov. Jared Polis and the Democratic agenda.

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“I think tonight’s evidence that the voters aren’t willing to go along with a full TABOR repeal,” said Jesse Mallory, Colorado director of Americans for Prosperity, the lead organization against Prop. CC. “I think it sends a clear message that the people of Colorado support the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.”

The ballot question asked voters for permission to keep tax dollars collected in excess of the state’s revenue caps in good economic years, and split the money between three priority areas. If it had passed, the governor’s office estimated it would have added $116 million each for K-12 education, colleges and universities and transportation in the first year.

Instead, the state will return between $524 million and $1.7 billion to taxpayers over three years starting in 2021. The early projections suggest taxpayers would receive anywhere from $20 to $62 for single filers and $40 to $124 refunds for joint filers, depending on a person’s income. But the rebate could reach as much as $248 for single filers and $638 for joint filers over three years, if estimates from the governor’s office are correct. 

The rejection continues a streak of losses at the ballot box for interest groups that want to find more money for education, colleges and transportation — three areas where Colorado ranks low in spending compared to its peers.

And it’s a bad omen for progressive organizations looking to push for more significant changes to the state’s tax structure and spending restraints. The backers suggested that if Prop. CC couldn’t win approval, then other more ambitious efforts were doomed.

House Speaker KC Becker, center, concedes the defeat of Proposition CC at election night event Nov. 5, 2019. The Boulder Democrat was one of the lead supporters for the ballot initiatives. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

But more immediately, the vote is a blow to the Democratic-led General Assembly and the governor. Polis offered his support for Prop. CC, but the first-term Democrat didn’t put as much energy behind it as its supporters expected. 

It’s a personal setback, too. In the 2018 campaign, he pledged to build a bipartisan coalition to overhaul TABOR and “win at the ballot box.” He made two other promises to find more money for schools and new revenue for transportation, according to The Colorado Sun’s promise tracker project, but he will have to look elsewhere to keep his word.

Polis didn’t attend the election night event with supporters. He departed Monday on an unannounced trade mission to India and Nepal. He issued a statement saying “it’s clear that voters want elected officials to do more with their existing tools and legal authority” and pledged to work to address transportation spending without mentioning education.

The supporters conceded the race at 9 p.m. but sounded a defiant tone, saying they would continue to push forward with measures to find money for education and transportation. “It was not a wasted effort,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder and lead supporter. “We are going to keep moving forward.”

The turnout neared a typical odd-year election in Colorado, but the enthusiasm appeared to favor Republicans ahead of the final day of voting. Unaffiliated voters — the largest bloc in Colorado — also topped Democrats in early ballot returns, an ominous sign for supporters who struggled to turn out their base.

Prop. CC supporters blamed a disappointing turnout in Democratic-heavy areas like Boulder and Denver for the loss. “I don’t feel like they are as invested in this election,” said Sonya Jacquez-Lewis, a Democratic state representative who represents Boulder County and backed the ballot measure. “I think there’s a lack of interest and a lack of knowledge about the ballot today.”

The campaign behind the ballot measure started months later than the opponents and drew criticism from Democratic strategists. But from the start it lacked the bipartisan support behind Referendum C in 2005 — which allowed for a five-year timeout on TABOR’s revenue limits.

Coloradans for Prosperity, the lead organization supporting Prop. CC, spent more than $4.3 million through the end of October, but it’s still millions less than the successful Ref. C initiative. And the organization drew criticism for its last-minute tactics to shame voters into casting ballots with a false “report card.”

The Sun learned Tuesday that the mailer — telling recipients that their voting record had earned a “B” grade while their neighbors had an “A” —  went out to about 600,000 unaffiliated and Democratic voters. It was supposed to be targeted to people who missed one or two of the last four elections, but because of a mistake, the issue committee also sent the mailer to people who have never missed an election, angering them.

Americans for Prosperity led the opposition. The national group backed by billionaire Charles Koch, which backs primarily Republicans, spent $1.6 million to defeat the proposition. 

The opponents declared victory shortly after 8 p.m. with only two-thirds of votes counted and interpreted the vote as major comeback victory for Republicans, who lost all statewide races in the 2018 election.

“This is a mandate to the state legislature that they damn well better start prioritizing roads and education without raising our taxes,” said Amy Oliver Cooke, who led the “No on CC” campaign committee on behalf of the Independence Institute, a think tank that advocates fiscal conservatism.

Former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who led the Ref. C effort but opposed Prop. CC, said Democrats should take heed of the vote. “If our friends in the Democratic Party use fee increases to avoid TABOR, they will face the possibility of having to defend that in a statewide vote,” he said.

Voters split and confused about Prop. CC

On the final day of voting, Prop. CC manifested as a pocketbook issue as people weighed the possibility of sporadic TABOR refunds against letting the state keep the money for schools, colleges and transportation. And plenty of confusion continued about the issue, too, as voters appeared concerned that the measure would impact their annual income tax returns.

Emily Przekwas dropped off her mail ballot in downtown Littleton. She had an intense argument with her grandfather about Prop. CC leading up to the election. He wanted a more holistic overhaul of TABOR, but Przekwas was willing to vote for a “little fix” to the tax law because she wants more funding for schools and infrastructure. 

The chance to cast a ballot related to TABOR excited Eleanor Floyd, a 32-year-old Democrat who voted at Christ Church on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. “I’m from not-Colorado and the idea of giving back revenue just because it was more than you expected has always been insane to me,” she said. “In general, I am in favor of more government support for infrastructure and people.”

Mason Miller said he usually sides with Democrats but didn’t know about TABOR. He voted against Prop. CC. 

“I figure the money is more beneficial for me right now,” he explained outside a downtown Denver voting center. “I need the money. I’d rather have tax refunds.”

Staff writers Jesse Paul and Jennifer Brown contributed to this report.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...

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